The return of Chinese travel could mean big money for global tourism : The Indicator from Planet Money Chinese citizens are once again allowed to travel internationally and the global tourism industry is ready to welcome them with open arms. Why? Chinese tourism has meant big money in the past. In 2019, Chinese travelers spent a fifth of all tourist dollars. But a full rebound in Chinese tourism might be a ways off.

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The return of Chinese tourism?

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EMILY FENG, BYLINE: And I'm Emily Feng. I'm one of NPR's international correspondents, and I cover China.

HIRSCH: Emily, welcome back to the show. It's lovely to have you. Thanks for joining us.

FENG: Thank you. I think this is the first episode I've done with you, and it's lovely to be here.

HIRSCH: Yeah. May I wish you a happy Lunar New Year? Year of the Rabbit, I believe.

FENG: Or cat, depending on who you ask. All I know is it's not my horoscope, which is the rooster.

HIRSCH: I'm actually a sheep or a goat. And I'm not sure if it's destined to be a prosperous year for me, but I'm certainly keeping my fingers crossed.

FENG: Well, I can tell you one sector of the global economy that feels like it might have a better year, and that's the global tourism industry. Because after nearly three years of near-total lockdown, the citizens of China are once again allowed to travel outside that country's borders.

HIRSCH: Which means that anyone even remotely connected to the tourism business is quivering with anticipation 'cause Chinese tourists are big money - huge money, in fact. In 2019, Chinese travelers spent $277 billion. That's a fifth of the global total outlay by international tourists.

FENG: That is a lot of money.


FENG: And so on today's show, we're going to look at the recovery in Chinese tourism, how big it could be and who it could benefit most. That's coming up after the break.


HIRSCH: Pre-pandemic, one of the hottest destinations for Chinese tourists was a farm on the island of Tasmania in Australia.

ROBERT RAVENS: Chinese visitors to the farm love to be here. They want to be here. You know, it's full of fresh air and beautiful flowers and, you know, all the good things.

FENG: This is Robert Ravens. He's the managing director of Bridestowe, a lavender farm in Tasmania. And Bridestowe has this remarkable success story that started back in 2009 when the company was brainstorming ways to appeal to the global market.

RAVENS: And we were putting lavender into ice creams, and that took off like crazy. And then we put lavender into a very famous object called Bobbie the Bear.

HIRSCH: Bobbie the Bear - he's like this wee, lavender-colored teddy bear. It's very cute. Apparently, you pop him in the microwave and warm him up. And, you know, you smell lavender all over the house - lovely.

FENG: Apparently, he's designed to be baby-sized, and this was why Chinese woman loved him so much.

HIRSCH: Oh, that makes total sense.

FENG: It's like a warm, lavender-scented baby.

HIRSCH: Kind of thing you'd like in your house, Emily?

FENG: I would get him, even though I don't like purple, just to warm my hands, to have a nice, lavender-scented pillow. But even if I'm not the biggest fan, it was this near-instant hit in China after a Chinese model named Zhang Xinyu got a hold of one, and she posted a picture of herself with Bobbie on social media.

RAVENS: It became a very desirable object for anyone in China. We used to get emails and letters about men wanting to propose to their girlfriends, and they had to do it with a Bobbie the Bear. You couldn't - you know, love wouldn't blossom unless they had a bear. It became a global sensation.

HIRSCH: Yeah, and Bridestowe became a hugely popular tourist destination almost overnight, partly because it was really hard to get a Bobbie the Bear in China. The toys are made by hand on-site at the farm.

FENG: And partly because Bridestowe is a beautiful place, with its rows and rows of lavender plants stretching over acres of hills. It was a must visit, especially if you wanted a bear. And Chinese tourists fell in love with the little farm.

RAVENS: We were seeing at peak, 85,000 visitors a year to our farm. We had to introduce crowd control. We had to introduce a monitoring system so that when you came in the gate, you were given a ticket, which allowed you to buy a bear. And people were trading tickets in our car park. They were doing - it was mania for two years, absolute mania.

HIRSCH: But when COVID hit, the mania stopped dead. China closed its borders and locked its population down in March of 2020. And that flood of tourists became a trickle.

FENG: Not all of the visitors to Bridestowe had been Chinese. Robert says about a third were of Chinese descent, and he's not entirely sure what proportion of those tourists actually came from China, but he definitely felt their absence.

RAVENS: We lost a huge chunk of our supporting tourists, and so that was a big shock. 2021 was a poor year, financially. It was awful.

HIRSCH: Tourism businesses all over the world can relate to this. Over the last decade, Chinese travelers have become a mainstay of global tourism. In 2019, 155 million Chinese people travelled abroad, and they spent more than $250 billion. That is a fifth of all the tourist dollars spent and way more than the next biggest spenders, Americans, who spent about $150 billion that year. It was kind of peanuts in comparison.

FENG: Some countries' tourism economies have become heavily dependent on Chinese travelers as a result. In Japan, Chinese visitors accounted for 30% of overseas arrivals before COVID. Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam are also popular, with millions of Chinese visiting each year before 2019. And outside of the Asia-Pacific, the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Italy have all benefited from the Chinese tourist dollar, which means they all suffered when the Chinese stopped traveling.

HIRSCH: Yeah, so those countries all have good reason to be very excited about the return of the Chinese tourist. But Mingming Cheng, a professor at Curtin University in Australia, says they'd do well to moderate their expectations. Outbound travel is up significantly from last year, he says. But it'll be mostly countries in the Asia-Pacific region that are going to see Chinese visitors first.

MINGMING CHENG: I would imagine those countries with strong ties to China will benefit most. So I would imagine Thailand, Cambodia - they will see quite a significant increase the next few months.

FENG: Notice his mention of strong ties to China. Regional and global politics are likely to be big drivers of Chinese tourist flows over the next year. And that's because the Chinese government knows how valuable its tourist dollars are to other economies, and it has ways of steering those dollars towards its friends and away from its foes.

HIRSCH: And China has a number of ways of doing this, right? It can restrict flights by state carriers to certain countries. It can restrict or deny certain types of travel permits and documentation. It can encourage package tour companies to offer services to certain favored destinations. And finally, it can use state media to influence the public's choice about where they're going to travel.

FENG: And that's precisely what has happened in the case of Japan and of South Korea this year, both of which, like the U.S., have insisted on COVID test requirements for any Chinese visitors. Chinese state media has pounced on this issue.

CHENG: So they will say, well, so other countries are really safe, the other countries, in terms of how they treat Chinese tourists. For example, they would say in South Korea because they require certain tests and also quarantine requirement - if state media will say it's - you know, it can't - discrimination against Chinese tourists is special treatment.

HIRSCH: Now, China itself requires visitors to China to test for COVID, which is kind of a double standard, I guess, but no matter. The state media's vilification of Japan and South Korea means that neither of those countries is likely to see a return to anything close to 2019 tourism levels for quite some time.

FENG: But even those countries with good diplomatic relations with China should not expect an immediate rebound to the pre-pandemic glory days. A recent survey of Chinese travelers found that 40% are not planning to go overseas this year.

HIRSCH: There are all sorts of reasons for this, right? I mean, some people are worried about getting sick. Some are worried about spending too much after the pandemic. Even the most optimistic forecasts are predicting that outbound passenger numbers will reach only about 50% of their pre-pandemic peak over this summer.

FENG: Robert Ravens of Bridestowe Lavender has his fingers crossed. He took advantage of the pandemic to spend some of the money the farm made in the good years to optimize its visitor experience.

RAVENS: We've upgraded our product through the COVID years. I mean, we've improved the farm. Our service facilities have improved. We can cope with increased numbers of visitors.

HIRSCH: Now, Robert's acutely aware that Australia and China haven't been on the best of terms for the last few years. The relationship started to deteriorate in 2018 when Australia banned Huawei Technologies from its 5G broadband network. Shortly after that, the Australian Prime Minister called for an investigation into the origins of COVID, which angered China.

FENG: Recently, however, the two countries appeared to have made up. They've warmed to each other a little bit more, and Robert's hoping that that's going to continue and that a healthy number of Chinese travelers will choose to come to visit his farm.

RAVENS: So the chance of a huge recovery, in the short term, is not likely, but there will be a stabilizing of that link with China. And I welcome that because Chinese tourists were very good to us. And the relationships remain strong.

HIRSCH: Companies geared to tourism all over the world are going to be saying the same kind of prayers that Robert is. They know that the years of lockdown in China will have created some pent-up demand and the possibility of some so-called revenge spending by the Chinese when they travel. Now, no one really knows if that's going to happen, of course. But everyone, from a lavender farm in Tasmania to the boutiques on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, is hoping that it will.


HIRSCH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by senior producer Viet Le. Sierra Juarez checked the facts. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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