World

Tour operators fear industry won't survive

Mainland Chinese tourist numbers fall 36 per cent since Taiwan president took power

SHANGHAI/BEIJING With 6 million Chinese tourists expected to travel abroad over the Chinese New Year break from Jan 27 to Feb 2, the holiday is crucial for Taiwan tour agency operator Li Chi-yueh, who relies on mainland visitors for a third of his revenue.

But his hopes are not high this year, after the number of mainland tourists plummeted 36 per cent since Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen took power in May.

Though Ms Tsai says Taiwan wants peace with China, Beijing suspects she seeks formal independence.

"China uses its sightseeing tourists as a diplomatic weapon," said Mr Li, owner of Taipei-based Chung Shin Travel Service, who has been representing Taiwan's tour operators to lobby Ms Tsai to improve ties with Beijing.

"There's a lot of concern that the industry won't survive if we carry on like this."

The concern is not confined to Taiwan - tour operators and government officials elsewhere in Asia say they fear China is using its increasingly high-spending tourists as a lever to pressure or reward its neighbours.

A government official from South Korea - which has irked China by agreeing to let the US deploy an anti-missile system - said Chinese and Korean tour companies had told him the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) had instructed Chinese agencies to cut tours to South Korea by at least 20 per cent between November and next month.

REJECTED

The official calculated that thousands of potential travellers were lost after eight applications to add charter flights between the countries in January and February were rejected without explanation.

"This is not a win-win situation - it is mutually disadvantageous. But what can we do? As far as defence is concerned, we have no room to compromise," said the official, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Chinese companies told him the measure was designed to cut an excessive number of low-quality, low-priced tours for Chinese tourists visiting Korea, the official said.

The CNTA did not respond to Reuters' requests for comment.

The number of Chinese tourists visiting South Korea inched up by just 1.8 per cent year on year in the month of November, versus a 70.2 per cent increase in August and a 22.8 per cent rise in September.

That was the worst since August 2015, when arrivals slid 32 per cent after a Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak.

Mainland travel companies Reuters spoke to acknowledged that traveller numbers to some countries were changing, but declined to comment on whether they had received government directives to discourage particular destinations.

"Travellers are voting with their feet. They are choosing to go the country that will make them happy and avoid the country that might make them feel unwelcome," said Mr Xu Xiaolei, chief brand officer at China Youth Travel Service, one of China's top three state-owned travel companies. - REUTERS

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