Europe, U.S. are losing charm for Chinese tourists

Feb 24, 2024
Young man passenger checking departure boarding pass in airport.

Mr. Liu Dafeng has been a fan of overseas travel. He lives in China’s Shenzhen city, southeastern Guangdong province. After weeks of preparation and paperwork, his plan of a long-awaited trip to Britain was shattered after his visa application was denied.

The reason was quite absurd: the officer at the British visa application centre in Shenzhen told him that he had an underlying motive to remain in Britain after his planned trip. Mr. Liu said he had no idea why the officer thought this.

The outright denial of a visa made him very frustrated. He complained that these days it is quite difficult to get visas for Europe and the United States, and consular officers of those countries are becoming increasingly arbitrary when it comes to making decisions. This dealt a serious blow to his zeal for international travel. He added that many of his Chinese friends who love to travel feel the same way.

Still seeking to see the world, he decided to spend his Chinese New Year holidays in Thailand instead, known for its friendlier and more accessible visa procedures for Chinese travellers.

Mr. Liu is not alone. His change of heart indicates a growing trend among Chinese tourists who desire to travel overseas: they tend to prefer other overseas destinations to those in Europe or the United States.

During this year’s eight-day Chinese New Year holiday, Southeastern Asian countries are the most favoured destinations for Chinese tourists, according to Tongcheng Travel, a Chinese travel agency company. Its data also showed that travel fever in Africa, South America and other long-haul outbound destinations is also growing rapidly.

In the meantime, European and U.S. tourism officials are disappointed that the Chinese tourists are not coming back. Take New York. The number of Chinese visitors to the American city among all international tourists dropped from 2nd in 2019 to 10th in 2023, according to New York City Tourism + Conventions, the city’s official marketing, tourism and partnership organisation.

The Chinese tourists have plenty of reasons to find alternative destinations.

For visitors who spend their money on relaxation and eye-opening experiences, a sense of safety and security are always a top priority. Yet it seems that the United States and some European countries offer little in terms of this because of an increasingly hostile environment, deteriorating security situations in the streets, and even real threats of terrorist attacks, in addition to rising hate crimes.

Ms. Li, a resident in Beijing who asked not to use her full name, said she used to travel to the United States frequently. Yet she admitted that her appetite to revisit the country has diminished.

She made her last U.S. trip with her parents and children in 2019. That was a self-guided tour in the state of California. What was supposed to be an enjoyable trip became quite the opposite. She said the abundance of homeless people and litter on the streets, a lack of sanitation and a sense of insecurity rattled her family. All she wanted then was to go back home safely. “Santa Monica Beach was beautiful, yet you just weren’t in the mood to enjoy it,” she said, adding that she and her family felt that their safety wasn’t guaranteed there.

Her words reminded me of my brief stay in Los Angeles back in 2018. When I walked in the downtown area of the city, I saw streets lined with decrepit structures and homeless people stinking of weed. To be honest, I was a little scared. All I did then was to carry my bag in front of me and leave the scene as quickly as I could.

What’s more, I have occasionally heard some of my friends complaining about their scary experience of being mugged on their trips to some European countries.

Rising tensions between China and the United States in recent years are another major factor that is driving away Chinese visitors.

To start with, it takes days and even weeks to get a U.S. visa if one is lucky enough. They may still have to face other obstacles when trying to enter the United States. Remember what happened to some Chinese students and teachers at American airports? They were interrogated for hours, and some of them were forced to return to China on the spot.

There are also a number of economic factors for the fading appeal for Chinese travellers to visit the United States and Europe.

Take France as an example. There are currently only 48 weekly flights between France and China, half the pre-pandemic level. Air France currently operates only 14 flights per week to Beijing and Shanghai, compared to 32 flights per week in 2019.

Driven by operational costs and profit considerations, Air France has no intention to add more flights. Due to EU sanctions against Russia, Air France’s flights to China must bypass Russian airspace, resulting in a 20-percent increase in fuel costs.

Moreover, accommodations, dining, transportation and other services at European and American destinations are generally more expensive compared to previous years due to inflation and unfavourable exchange rates.

Chinese visitors themselves are now more budget-conscious when it comes to travel. The days are gone when they went abroad just to buy bags and clothes, fine wines and luxury watches. Britain has now scrapped tax-free shopping for international tourists after Brexit, another reason to go somewhere else. Chinese consumers today have more cost-effective and convenient options to buy such items, like online shops and domestic duty-free venues.

Chinese travellers tend to compare prices before booking hotels, and even high-income individuals are increasingly opting for lower-priced accommodations, with a trend towards self-driving trips and city walks, which means roaming city streets without a busy itinerary or cumbersome shopping bags.

So it is not hard to explain why Mr. Liu and many more Chinese travellers like him are visiting Thailand and other ASEAN countries: These countries offer visa-free policies, discounted airfare prices and foods that cater to Chinese tourists’ tastes.

Although the Chinese tourism industry is still recovering from COVID-19, outbound tourism from China is projected to grow 131 percent between 2024 and 2033, according to a report released at the World Travel Market in London.

So, don’t get it wrong: The Chinese people are still gung-ho about overseas travel. But now, they are doing it differently.

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