China is moving up from homebody to international jetsetter in a big hurry. By 2000, still mired in travel restrictions limiting travel to tour groups, it surpassed the UK as global tourism's fourth largest outbound provider. In 2004, China nearly doubled its list of "Approved Destination Status" (ADS) countries, sanctioning a total of 66 foreign countries for visits.
Non-ADS countries, the United States being one, are not off limits, but travel to them usually requires business or study visas, ruling out general tourist traffic.
Hong Kong and Macau have been taking in more than 90% of China's outbound traffic for years. And outbound travel has been growing fast. The first seven months of 2004 saw 16m Chinese head out, a jump of 63.7% over the same period a year earlier. While SARS certainly cooled tourism prospects in 2003, China's outbound travelers even then outpaced Japanese going abroad, establishing China as Asia's largest outbound provider.
The neighbors have noticed and have shifted some of their focus away from traditional markets. Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines have all mounted promotional schemes, intent on making the most of their ADS status. "Chinese airlines flying direct to Malaysia have multiplied, and we're promoting ourselves to the Chinese market as something different from Hong Kong," says Chong Yokesar of the Malaysia Tourism Board. One difference the board likes to play up: "[Malaysia is] an overseas destination, not a domestic one."
Singapore, which used to demand to see bank records of mainlanders before letting them in, now issues visas on the strength of applicants having Visa Gold cards.
Apart from China's own travel restrictions, one obstacle to Chinese tourist exports turns out to be Mainland travel agencies, which have a mixed reputation abroad. All ADS travel falls under the mantle of the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) and state-owned operators work under its umbrella.
Thais: Enough already
Thailand, which got ADS status in 1991, is a case in point. In 2001, it temporarily barred Mainland tour groups, citing concerns over shoddy wholesaling practices and price-fixing. What trade there was netted Thailand only hordes of grumpy Chinese tourists and big bills, which local agencies were stuck paying, to hear the Thais tell it. Roger March of Australia's Inbound Tourism Studies Centre well knows the problem. "Australia, the third biggest Chinese outbound destination of the last five years, has had to repeatedly pressure these wholesalers about the low rates the CNTA pays out per customer, which were driving Australian inbound retailers into the ground."
Chinese can be big spenders, averaging US$3,000-$4,000 per trip when journeys take them as far afield as Europe, North America and Australia, according to a survey commissioned by Australia's tourism board in 2002. European countries might not feel the hit though, since Chinese overwhelmingly travel in tours that buzz through several countries at a go. But figures vary widely; some travel spend data include spending on shopping, some don't. One US industry figure suggests Chinese spend an average US$2,500 per visit.
Official 2003 data from Macau, Asia's casino capital, indicates Chinese account for 48% of visitors and spend an average of US$280 a day over an average seven days. The US is still the top destination for Chinese venturing beyond Macau and Hong Kong. But with wrangles ongoing between Beijing and Washington over visa matters, state governments have started doing more of their own promoting. Late last year, for example, Hawaii and Nevada both opened state tourist offices specifically targeting the Chinese market.
"Sure, the US getting ADS would bring up the numbers, but the numbers are still progressing at a brisk rate," says Bruce Bommarito, a board member of the Washington- based Travel Industry of America. "We're anticipating the current numbers of Chinese tourists doubling in the next couple years, and that seems to be the trend nearly everywhere." Numbers doubling – sounds like China.