Senior business players in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) tourist industry will gather from Jan. 14 to 18 in Ha Long city in Vietnam for the 38th ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) to discuss the sustainable, inclusive and balanced development of tourism in Southeast Asia.
They will certainly discuss Chinese tourists — who are the main source of tourism dollars in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines — and related matters, including the issue of so-called “zero-dollar tourism”.
Under “zero-dollar tourism”, Chinese visitors are offered heavily discounted and all-inclusive package group tours in which they must do their shopping at designated shops or retail outlets at a marked-up price. The payment at these shops must be made using Chinese digital payment platforms like WeChat and Alipay in Chinese renminbi.
ASEAN tourism ministers will hold their annual ASEAN Tourism Ministerial Meeting from Jan.17 to 18 as main part of the ATF. They will meet their Chinese counterpart to discuss the fast-growing Chinese outbound tourism market and also design plans and strategies to attract more Chinese tourists to Southeast Asia.
Chinese tourists are ubiquitous across the globe. Even if one visits the most remote tourist area in Africa, there will be at least a few Chinese tourists there. It could almost be said that there is no tourist spot on planet without Chinese visitors.
There are several reasons for the sky-rocketing numbers of Chinese tourists during the last 15 years. First China is the most populous country in the world with 1.41 billion people and they constitute roughly one fifth of the global population.
Second, China, whose per capita GDP—according to the World Bank– was US$8,827 in 2017, has a 430-million strong middle class and 60 percent of its 1.41 billion people live in urban areas.
Third, thanks to a constant increase in personal incomes, most of the middle-class people have developed a special passion for tourism and shopping.
Fourth, internet or online technology has made it easy to book plane or cruise tickets and hotel accommodation.
Fifth, a relaxation of visa requirements for Chinese tourists, including visa-on-arrival, by many countries, has prompted Chinese to travel abroad.
Sixth, affordable airline tickets and connectivity have made overseas travel easier.
Seventh, the creativity of Chinese tour operators in organizing efficient and highly professional group tours, including the controversial “zero-dollar” tours, in which tourists pay all expenses in advance and shop at designated places, paying using online Chinese companies.
All these factors, especially rising incomes, have led to an unprecedented boom in the Chinese outbound tourism sector.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), 131 million overseas trips were made by Chinese people in 2017, this is higher than the number of United States tourists who traveled abroad in that year. It is an enormous increase, of more than 1,300 percent compared with the figure of 10.5 million Chinese people who made overseas trips in 2000. Chinese travelers spent a record $257.7 billion overseas in 2017, again a huge jump from the $10 billion spent by Chinese tourists abroad in 2000.
American tourists spent $135 billion in 2017, and remain the second-biggest spenders in the world. Over all, according the UNWTO, some 1.32 billion international visits were made globally in 2017, during which $1.34 trillion was spent.
Coming back to Southeast Asia, all members of ASEAN have been enjoying a boom in their tourist sectors, thanks to the huge surge in the number of Chinese tourists.
Based on the data from the www.aseanstats.org, ASEAN countries received 124.86 million foreign tourists and $134.66 billion in income from them. By comparison Southeast Asian countries received just 28.5 million international visitors in 1995, 36.3 million in 2000 and 110.8 million in 2016.
What has contributed to this growth in tourism during the last 15 years?
There are two reasons.
The first is the rise of incomes in both China, which, as we have seen, emerged as the second-largest economy with a huge middle class during the same period, and also in ASEAN, which contributes more than 40 percent of international tourists in intra-ASEAN tourism.
The second is the affordability of air travel, thanks to mushrooming of budget airlines.
“Around 20 years ago, air travel was considered a luxury and only rich people could afford it. Now even a poor person can fly to his hometown. All this is because of budget airlines,” Dewi Sundari, who works in a private company in Jakarta, told this author.
Chinese tourists have been flocking to Southeast Asian countries, which are conveniently located for China. For example, Thailand has been receiving more than 10 million tourists from China annually over the last three years. Almost one third of Thailand’s 35.38 million foreign tourists came from China in 2017.
Likewise, in Vietnam – according to the latest data of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism – around 5 million Chinese tourists arrived in 2018, almost one third of its total 15.49 million foreign tourists.
In Indonesia, another rising star in ASEAN tourism, around 2.1 million Chinese tourists arrived in 2017, out of its total 14.04 million foreign tourists in the same year.
It was the same situation in Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, where the number of Chinese tourists has been constantly rising.
Overall it is estimated that around 25 million Chinese tourists visited ASEAN countries in 2018. This number may double in the next five years.
Southeast Asian countries may fiercely compete to woo more Chinese tourists to their respective countries by offering discounted tour packages and visa waivers but they should keep in mind that ASEAN is a family and they should maintain healthy competition in luring Chinese tourists.
The rising number of Chinese tourists in Southeast Asia can boost tourism by creating millions of new jobs but it could become a tool in China’s soft-power diplomacy. Maintaining cordial relations with China is a must for ASEAN member states in order to reap benefits from Chinese investments, trade and tourism.