Opinion | Global tourism is recovering, but for Asia it’s a mixed bag at best

But behind the headlines, the story is more complex – and for many worldwide, rather less encouraging. For countries like China, it is a story of a “swift and sound” recovery in domestic tourism, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), and of “tepid and partial growth” in international travel last year. In Europe, by far the world’s largest tourism market, it is a story of strong recovery. Across Asia, the story is anaemic at best.
And it is a story of new tourism markets and travel patterns, with much excitement focused on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Gulf economies.

The World Tourism Barometer reported almost 1.3 billion tourists last year, a 34 per cent rebound from 2022. Tourism export revenues rallied to an estimated US$1.6 trillion, just 5 per cent short of 2019’s, after collapsing in 2020. But behind these numbers was a more variable picture.

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Tourists largely welcome ban on visitors entering historical geisha district

Tourists largely welcome ban on visitors entering historical geisha district

International arrivals in Europe last year were just 6 per cent short of the 2019 peak. And since they accounted for 54 per cent of the global total of nearly 1.29 million (France remains the world’s most popular destination), Europe’s recovery powerfully skewed the numbers.

Asia welcomed just 233 million international tourists last year, still 35 per cent below 2019. Traveller numbers into northeast Asia (including China, South Korea and Japan) are still down by 45 per cent from 2019, and for Southeast Asia, down by nearly 30 per cent.

UN Tourism’s forecast of a full recovery this year includes a significant caveat: it is “subject to the pace of recovery in Asia and to the evolution of existing economic and geopolitical challenges”. It added that “tourists are expected to increasingly seek value for money and travel closer to home, in response to elevated prices and the overall economic challenges”.

And when they say Asia, they are considering China in particular, which is in the thick of the “economic and geopolitical challenges” they refer to. According to China’s National Immigration Administration, international visitors jumped sevenfold from 2022 to 35.5 million last year, after Covid restrictions were lifted, but remains just one third of the 2019 volume.

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Bridge in China swamped with tourists during Lunar New Year holiday

Bridge in China swamped with tourists during Lunar New Year holiday

For Chinese travelling overseas, the recovery has been similarly tepid, restrained by a slow restoration of international flights and the fact that just 14 per cent of Chinese adults own a valid passport, compared to 56 per cent in the United States and 84 per cent in Britain. According to flight data provider OAG, Chinese airlines today serve just 85 destinations in Asia and 56 further afield, compared with 119 Asian destinations and 77 elsewhere in 2019.

According to a recent EIU report, mainlanders made 101 million “cross-border trips” last year – down from 168 million in 2019. Of this 101 million, 77 million trips were to Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan, with just 23.9 million further afield – about 36 per cent of 2019 levels.

How quickly Chinese tourists will re-establish their position as the world’s largest group of top spenders depends on a number of factors.

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Thailand rolls out red carpet for Chinese tourists on visa-free scheme

Thailand rolls out red carpet for Chinese tourists on visa-free scheme

Household balance sheets have been damaged by the pandemic, and the yuan’s depreciation has made international travel more expensive. High youth employment has discouraged many young people from international travel. While the government has made it easier to get visas, and is providing visa waivers for countries like Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and across many Gulf destinations, many international travel restraints remain.

Despite the challenges, the potential for mainland travellers to swamp the world’s tourism markets remains considerable.

For example, for the Spring Festival period, Chinese online travel agency Qunar reportedly saw bookings to the UAE, Egypt and Morocco that were three times higher year-on-year, with a 10-fold increase for Dubai. Qunar also reported that bookings to Singapore leapt by 29-fold and to Malaysia by 20-fold. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Morocco all entered Chinese travel social platform Mafengwo’s list of top 20 international travel destinations for the festive period.

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Absent government restraints, the appetite of China’s middle class to travel internationally clearly remains extremely strong – enough to give research staff at UN Tourism much optimism.

Estimates made back in 2020 predicted that the pandemic would strip over US$4 trillion from the global economy, and extinguish over 60 million jobs. No recent publicly available estimates have clarified or confirmed these estimates, but for many whose livelihoods depend on the travel and tourism sector, this kind of recovery cannot come soon enough – particularly in Asia, where we still have a long way to go.

David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific over the past four decades

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