Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Chinese tourism to Australia still in the doldrums after pandemic travel bans

Must read

In the two weeks either side of lunar new year, Mandy Ho, who manages a hot air balloon company in Melbourne, has many balls in the air.

Most mornings before dawn, when weather permits, her colleagues fly Chinese tourists from the vineyards of the Yarra Valley over Melbourne’s eastern suburbs to parkland on the city’s fringe. Interpreters make sure nothing is lost in translation.

Ho has spent weeks preparing tourists and arranging buses to collect them from hotels. She’s already met some of them while running the company’s Mandarin smartphone app, website and Chinese social media channels.

But this year, she’s noticed a shift. Ho says Chinese tourist numbers are still down by about half when compared with pre-pandemic levels. It’s a financial hit for the company, Global Ballooning, as the Chinese market brings in about 50% of its clients.

“I was expecting a full recovery this year as it’s the first year they can travel overseas for Chinese new year,” Ho says. “But it’s been a much slower recovery than what we expected.”

A hot air balloon prepares for takeoff in Melbourne. The Chinese market accounts for about 50% of the clients of one Melbourne travel company. Photograph: Paul Rovere/Getty Images

Ho isn’t the only tourism operator disappointed by the sluggish return of Chinese tourists. Tourism Australia figures show 102,000 Chinese holidaymakers visited Australia in September 2023. Four years earlier, the number was 688,000 in the same month.

“I think there’s a few reasons for this,” Ho says.

“The economy in China isn’t great and a lot of people are choosing to go to Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia because they’re visa-free. This is the first year they’ve been able to travel since the pandemic and they’re preferring short-haul flights.”

Ho’s analysis is supported by statistics from booking platform Trip.com, which has reported a 30% increase in Chinese tourism to south-east Asia in recent weeks, compared with 2019 levels. Trips to Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea have also increased.

As Chinese tourists take their money elsewhere, Ho and other tourism providers have had to get creative.

“We tried not to put all our eggs in the one basket,” Ho says. “We diversified our market and this year we’re seeing a lot people coming back from the United States, from Taiwan and Hong Kong, too.”

‘We’re not hitting alarm bells just yet’

Peter Shelley from the Australian Tourism Export Council, a peak body for tourism operators, says many of his members are also disappointed but are not panicking.

“If we are honest, I think we were all hoping it would be a little bit more buoyant. It was never going to be 100%, we hoped it would be about 75%,” Shelley says.

“Are we worried about it? I don’t think anyone is hitting the alarm bells just yet. It’s still early days, and maybe by the end of the year we’ll be back to 2019 levels.”

Shelley says many Chinese consumers now realise Australia is an expensive country to visit and fly to. This month, there’s about 170 scheduled flights between China and Australia. That’s 86% of all flights during the same month in 2019.

Tourism Australia, a government agency that promotes holiday making, knows what’s at stake. In 2019, Chinese visitors spent $12.4m in Australia. The agency hopes tourism will return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year, despite Oxford Economics suggesting that may not happen until 2025-26.

“[While] travel with China reopened a year later than other markets, we are confident about its recovery as the market continues to steadily rebuild,” a Tourism Australia spokesperson says.

In 2019, Chinese visitors spent $12.4m holidaying in Australia. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP

But some experts are concerned by anecdotal evidence this past fortnight. Dr Paul Stolk, a senior lecturer in tourism at Newcastle University, says this lunar new year was a litmus test on the health of the Chinese market.

“This is the period of time where we should see a lot of activity,” Stolk says. “This period we are in right now could be really telling in terms of whether we will see any bounce back and where it will occur, including capital cities and regional hotspots.”

‘We’ve been back to normal’

The Great Ocean Road – a long winding roadway that hugs the south-eastern Victorian coastline over steep cliffs – is usually filled with busloads of Chinese tourists. For years, signs by the side of the road have reminded Chinese tourists to drive in the left lane.

skip past newsletter promotion

Before the pandemic, some restaurants in coastal towns along this road printed menus in Mandarin. After years of lockdowns, many business owners hoped the Chinese tourists would rush back to the coastline and help them rebound.

A coastal section of the Great Ocean Road, just outside Lorne. Chinese tourist numbers along the stretch have failed to recover since the start of the pandemic. Photograph: Tsvi Braverman/EyeEm/Getty Images

Liz Price, the general manager of Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism, acknowledges the Chinese tourism market has been slow to recover in the region. But she says recent weeks give some cause for optimism.

“We have had some reports that the numbers have increased over the summer and there has been some growth in coaches day-tripping out of Melbourne,” Price says.

This may be due to the Australian government reissuing group visas for Chinese travellers in September. Dr Maneka Jayasinghe, a tourism expert at Charles Darwin University, says this should lead to an increase in tourists in coming months.

Sally Cannon, who runs the Apollo Bay Bakery about two-and-a-half hours drive west of Melbourne, which claims to be the home of the scallop pie on the Great Ocean Road, is also optimistic.

Unlike Ho, Cannon has noticed an increase in Chinese tourists over the last two weeks. So, too, have other business owners closer to Melbourne, in Lorne. Cannon says she’s hopeful the numbers will continue to rise.

“Pre-Covid, Chinese tourists were a big part of our business,” Cannon says. “Over the past few years, we’ve managed to continue without them, but it’s nice to see them return.

“This has been the first year since Covid where it’s felt we’ve been back to normal. I just have this feeling it will continue.”

‘It was like a green light’

Like many sections of the Australian economy, political tensions between Beijing and Canberra have had some impact on tourism. But analysts differ on the how significant the influence has been.

Tom Parker, the chief executive of the Australia China Business Council, says tensions may have played a role in tourism numbers until prime minister Anthony Albanese’s trip to Beijing in November – the first by an Australian leader in seven years.

“Symbolism is important in China,” Parker says.

“This trip certainly symbolised a lot within China, including that it was OK to engage with Australia again. It was like a green light. These things are never said directly, but the visit, at that leadership level, told a story.”

Shelley says the impact of geopolitical tensions would have been clearer if the borders had been open during the pandemic era.

“If we were talking about this a few years ago, I think the impact would have been quite high,” Shelley says. “I must say, the current government has smoothed the waters but there could still be an undertone of tension.”

Ho believes the enduring appeal of the Australian landscape will always attract tourists from China, no matter the political climate. She just hopes they won’t wait too long to return.

“I definitely think they will come back,” Ho says. “There’s just so much to offer. By the end of this year, I’m sure the numbers will have increased.”

Latest article