The return of Chinese tourists – US and allies don’t want them, other countries fighting to welcome them

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Malaysia Inbound Tourism Association (MITA) hopes three million Chinese tourists will visit Malaysia in 2023.

Hari Anggara

China’s sudden reversal of its “Zero-Covid” policy has taken the world by storm. After micromanaging the Coronavirus pandemic for nearly three years, what actually caused the leadership of Xi Jinping to abandon the policy once hailed as proof of Beijing’s competency in containing the virus? Some said the Chinese president was finally convinced that it’s not going to be so bad to reopen again.

After all, those in China that needed the vaccine have already been vaccinated. Besides, you can’t shut down the country forever. The Omicron strain has proven to produce less severe symptoms and lower mortality as feared earlier by Beijing. The Zero-Covid policy was adopted in 2020 because President Xi didn’t want Covid-19 to spread uncontrollably.

There’s nothing much Beijing can do now even if the lifting of the quarantines and lockdowns triggers new waves of infections or deaths. Scientists in the United States estimated that China risks 1.5 million Covid deaths if it drops its tough Zero-Covid policy. British scientific information and analytics company Airfinity claimed up to 2.1 million people could die if the policy is scrapped.

That figures could be highly exaggerated because the total deaths due to Covid in the US has been just one million from over 100 million infections. But some argued that more people will die in China because the Chinese vaccines were inferior. If that’s true, we should have an unusual high number of deaths in countries that used Chinese vaccines such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Africa and South America continents.

Another theory suggests that Beijing was forced to make the U-turn following protests in November, which began after a fire in Xinjiang killed ten people, leading to questions whether the harsh Covid-19 policies had hampered rescue efforts. Western news media, especially BBC, created the narrative as if the protests were so widespread nationwide that democracy would replace communism in China.

However, some have also  argued that Xi Jinping indeed has lifted the Covid-19 quarantine and lockdown due to the protests – but to teach the young Chinese punks a lesson. If they want freedom, let’s give them freedom. The abruptly abandoned Zero-Covid strategy has seen a spike in infections as well as deaths. Visits to clinics and hospitals due to fever have skyrocketed.

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The pressure on public health system saw more than 90% of consumers surveyed in China said they are avoiding going out. Amusingly, according to the study done by Oliver Wyman, most Chinese people don’t want to leave their apartments now, after screaming on the street demanding for freedom and the lifting of the home quarantines not many moons ago.

Another compelling reason why China dropped the restrictive policy has everything to do with its economy. Geopolitical competition with the US and domestic social stability are two primary factors in the administration of China’s Communist Party. The growth engines in China are investment, consumption, and export – therefore it has to open in order to provide employment for young people.

A series wave of lockdowns has led to a dramatic decline in retail sales, and consumption, and service sectors that employ a lot of people. Tech companies alone, which employed young people and college graduates, have seen its market valuation plunged almost US$3 trillion – Alibaba has lost 80% of its value in the past two years while Tencent’s stock price plunged 70% since 2021.

It didn’t help that China’s retail sales declined by 5.9% year-on-year in November 2022 – worse than market expectations of a 3.7% drop, and much faster than a 0.5% fall in the prior month. However, with Beijing’s sudden lifting of restrictions, analysts at Citi forecast retail sales in the world’s second largest economy to grow 11% during 2023 to a whopping US$7 trillion

The biggest step to ease restrictions is the lifting of Covid-19 quarantine requirements on international arrivals. First thought to be a half-baked policy, the National Health Commission surprised many when it announced that effective January 8, 2023, the country will abolish all quarantine measures, including requirements for inbound visitors – both foreigners and Chinese nationals.

Like a miracle, the streets are once again jammed with traffic, and travel agencies are packed with Chinese tourists eager to book foreign holidays. Before the pandemic, China was the main driver of tourism, contributing a jaw-dropping 150 million travellers to the world. Travel booking site – Trip.com – saw more than 250% outbound bookings after Beijing’s scrapping of quarantine measures.

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Hilariously, the US and its allies are now singing a different tune. Previously condemning the Zero-Covid policy as draconian and a violation of human rights, now the same Western powers are accusing the scrapping quarantine rules for travellers as an attempt to spread Covid variants beyond China’s borders. China is wrong for locking up its people and is also wrong for freeing up its people.

Even though Beijing has stopped publishing daily case numbers, why is the West so terrified? Are they afraid that their superior Pfizer-BioNTech (Germany), Moderna (US) and Oxford University-AstraZeneca (UK) Covid vaccines could not stop variants from China? It screams hypocrisy when the West encouraged the Chinese people to protest over lockdowns, but now discourages them from travelling post-lockdowns.

The US said effective January 5, all arrivals from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau must provide a negative Covid test taken within two days of departure. In addition, passengers flying through South Korea and Canada will also need to test negative before going to the US if they were in China 10 days prior. And the PCR test or rapid test must be authorized by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).

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Likewise, Japan will require a negative Covid-19 test upon arrival for travellers from mainland China. Effective midnight on December 30, 2022, travellers from China who test positive will be required to quarantine for seven days. The Japanese government will also limit requests from airlines to increase flights to China in what is seen as discouraging visitors from China.

Italy too has ordered Covid-19 antigen swabs and virus sequencing for all travellers coming from China while Taiwan will test arrivals from China from January 1, 2023 onwards. While the United Kingdom, Germany, Portugal and France have no plans to introduce mandatory Covid-19 tests, the European Union could impose new rules if more members reintroduce testing.

But the US, UK and Japan are not the only favourite destinations for Chinese tourists. Other top 10 countries in the list are Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Macau and Hong Kong. As the US and some of its allies do not seem interested, Malaysia and Singapore cheer the return of the Chinese tourists after Beijing’s three years of the Zero-Covid policy.

Singapore said vaccination requirements for travellers and work pass holders arriving from China remain unchanged. Travellers, including those from China who are not fully vaccinated, will need to undergo pre-departure tests before they can enter the Republic. Singapore is among the top five destinations that saw a spike in interest from China, with a 600% increase in bookings.

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The reasons offered by Singapore not to slap additional restrictions on travellers from China make perfect sense – the small island has a high vaccination rate. Furthermore, China’s infection rates are not higher than comparable countries. For three consecutive years before the pandemic, China topped the list for Singapore’s international visitor arrivals by country, with Chinese travellers constituted almost 20% of total arrivals in 2019.

Other countries in the Southeast Asia eagerly waiting for Chinese tourists, who spent a mind-boggling US$255 billion annually before the pandemic, are Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Malaysia Airlines and Vietnamese budget carrier VietJet Aviation said they hope to restore China flights to pre-pandemic levels by June 2023.

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Like Singapore, Chinese tourists to Malaysia peak during the Chinese New Year holiday and summer school holidays. In 2019, there was a total of 3.4 million Chinese visitors to Singapore with average spending of US$2,971 per trip, and 3.04 million to Malaysia with average spending of US$956. Chinese tourists travel to both countries for different reasons.

Chinese tourists enjoy Singapore as a casual luxury holiday destination. Many of them stay in integrated resorts (51%) in Singapore, visiting gardens by the bay (36%) and shopping in Sentosa (38%). The luxury comfort and metropolitan sophistication in Singapore are the main attractions to Chinese tourists as a traveling destination.

Most Chinese tourists will visit at least three different destinations in Malaysia. Some of the top destinations include Kuala Lumper (71%), Sabah (61%), Melaka (47%), Semporna (38%), Kota Kinabalu (31%), and Batu Caves (30%). The multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Malaysia offers a rich experience to Chinese tourists, which is also the main driver for choosing to travel in Malaysia.

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Malaysia Inbound Tourism Association (MITA) hopes three million Chinese tourists will visit Malaysia in 2023. In 2019, 3.1 million Chinese tourists had visited Malaysia, spending RM15.33 billion – accounting for 17.8% of the country’s tourism sector. But the Malaysian government has to do more to attract tourism revenue as neighbouring Thailand has been very aggressive.

Thailand’s Tourism and Sports Ministry has proposed providing free Covid-19 booster shots to tourists entering the kingdom in a bid to attract more international travellers. Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said – “Each vaccine shot will cost just a few hundred baht while each foreign tourist will spend an average of 40,000 baht in Thailand per trip.”

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As one of Asia’s most popular travel destinations, Thailand is set to welcome at least 20 million tourists and generate tourism receipts of 2.38 trillion baht (US$64.5 billion). Russians are already flocking to the country, with 1.75 million visitors in November alone, quadruple the number received for the entire of last year when flights and foreign arrivals were limited by the pandemic. – Finance Twitter