MINGMING CHENG. We depend so much more on Chinese travellers now. (The Conversation 12.2.2020)

Australia has joined New Zealand, the United States, Indonesia, India, Israel and other countries in deciding to refuse entry to all foreigners flying from or who have recently been in mainland China.

These bans dramatically escalate the potential economic impact of the novel coronavirus.

Over the past two decades China has grown from a minnow to a whale in international travel. Not counting mainland Chinese visiting Hong Kong and Macau (about 76 million in 2018), data from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation show the number of Chinese going abroad climbed from 2.8 million in 1997 to about 73 million in 2018.

This places China fourth in terms of international visits, behind Germany (about 92 million), the United States (88 million) and Britain (74 million).

Rise of the Chinese traveller

Besides Hong Kong and Macau, Chinese travellers most visit neighbouring nations – Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Singapore. Next is Italy, then the United States and Malaysia.

Australia is somewhat down the list – just the 17th-most-popular destination for Chinese visitors in 2018 (1.4 million visits). New Zealand was the 26th (about 448,000).



But China is now Australia’s largest source of international visitors. Short-term arrivals from China overtook those from New Zealand (the top source for many decades) in 2017.



In the 12 months to November 2019, there were 1.44 million Chinese visitors to Australia, according to Tourism Australia. This was about 15% of the total 9.44 million short-term arrivals.

But Chinese visitors contributed relatively more to the Australian economy. The average spend per Chinese trip was $A9,235. This compared with $A5,943 for Germans, $A5,219 for Americans, $4,614 for Japanese and $A2,032 for New Zealanders.

This meant Chinese travellers contributed about A$12 billion to the Australian economy – or 27% of the total amount spent by all international visitors. International tourism accounts for about a quarter of Australia’s total tourism market. That means, in the greater scheme of things, Chinese travellers help create 0.6% of Australia’s annual GDP.

The student effect

The reason the Chinese spend (on average) so much more than other visitors is due to the large number of Chinese who come to Australia to study.

The Tourism Australia data show almost 275,000 of the 1.44 million Chinese visits – about 20% – were for educational purposes. By comparison, study was the reason for fewer than 14,000 – or less than 1% – of the 1.42 million visits by New Zealanders.

Chinese students stayed an average of 124 nights before going home and spent an average of $27,000. This is more than any other nationality. The average spent by all international students was A$22,000.

Chinese tourists, on average, stayed an average of 14 days and spent A$4,655. The average for all international holidaymakers was A$4,286. The biggest-spending were the Italians (A$7,174), Germans (A$6,028) and British ($A6,011).

So Chinese students accounted for just shy of 58% – or A$7.1 billion – of all the money spent by Chinese visitors.

Ban impacts

Australia’s travel ban has come just in time to disrupt the plans of thousands of Chinese students coming or returning to Australia. February is normally the peak month for Chinese arrivals in Australia. In 2019, the month recorded 206,300 arrivals – roughly double the average month.

This is because this month is when many Chinese students arrive or return to Australia to start the university year. (It’s also due in part to the proximity of the Chinese lunar new year – January 25 this year, February 25 last year – when hundreds of thousands of Chinese travel for a holiday or to visit family.)

Chinese students enrolled in Australian universities comprise 38% of all full-fee paying international students. With international students now contributing about 23% of university revenues, this suggests the Chinese market alone contributes about 9%.

More Chinese students come to Australia for vocational education and training or school. All up, Chinese students account for about 30% of total overseas student enrolments.


Long-term impacts

Our main point of reference for the economic impact of the coronavirus is the impact of SARS in late 2002. The Chinese government imposed similar travel restrictions to now. But Australia did not ban travellers from China outright. It instead relied on screening at airports.

In May 2003 just 3,100 Chinese visited Australia, a 75% decline on the 12,600 visitors in May 2002. Visitor numbers from other Asian countries also suffered, with the total number of international short-term arrivals falling 8.5% in April , then a further 2.6% in May.

But SARS was contained relatively quickly. By July the Chinese government had lifted its restrictions. The following month Chinese arrivals were back up to more than 12,000.


Chinese visitor arrivals during and after the SARS crisis. Australian Bureau of Statistics

The economic impact of SARS was therefore “short-lived and limited”, according to the Australian Treasury.

The economic impact of the novel coronavirus is shaping to be more signficant, based on the scale of crisis, the severity of travel restrictions, the likelihood travel bans will stay in place for longer and the much greater numbers of Chinese tourists and students on which Australia’s tourism and education industries have come to rely.

Mingming Cheng is Senior Lecturer, School of Marketing, Curtin University.

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1 Response to MINGMING CHENG. We depend so much more on Chinese travellers now. (The Conversation 12.2.2020)

  1. Anthony Pun says:

    Chinese tourist a big spenders not only in Australia but also in New York , USA. The travel ban has highlighted the adverse effect to the economy, ie. departmental stores, internal travel services, restaurants and other hospitality services. The money not spent by Chinese tourist will flow again when COVIS19 epidemic subside. However,
    the choice of destination of Chinese tourist will once again re-aligned and the choice of destination will be in favour of countries that exhibited the least xenophobic incidence which arises during the peak of the Coronavirus epidemic. Australia xenophobic response is on the high list.
    Relieve is on the way according to Prof. Michael Levitt, Chemistry Nobel Prize winner 2013, was interviewed on CGTN (The Point) and his message was optimistic saying the diseases has peaked and subsiding. He made the conclusion by studying the medical statistics available comparing those in Wuhan, adjacent Hubei cities, other provincial cities in China and cities overseas. He also praised China for her efforts to contain the spread of the Coronavirus. Prof Levitt hope his calculation would help “calm” the people.
    Universities – If tertiary education authorities can postpone their 1st Seminster start by 4 weeks, the bulk of the students would return to Australia, have their 2 weeks of voluntary quarantine & declared OK by health authorities before returning to the universities, then there is no money lost. The inflexibility of the university authorities in handling this problem is very costly.
    https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/top-universities-face-losing-thousands-of-students-hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars-20200205-p53y2i.html
    Finally, there is a high degree of interdependence of the Australian and Chinese economy and when China sneezes, Australia gets the cold. This is a wake up reminder for Australia to re-tune its China policy before recession sets in.

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