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When China uses tourism as a weapon of economic destruction

China’s worsening relations with its neighbours have consequences for the tourism industry. Asia starts to learn it as Chinese exhibitors and buyers deserted the current PATA Travel Mart and tourists boycott destinations under political pressure…

REPORT – PHILIPPINES – MANILA 2012 PATA TRAVEL MART: The current PTM offers a major change compared to previous shows: Chinese are almost completely absent from the venue with just two sellers from China PRC being registered and a couple more from Macau and Hong Kong. The reason: worsening relations with the Philippines due to a row over a few islets lost somewhere in the South China Sea. Sounds familiar? Yes, indeed. Last week, China had also cancelled its participation at JATA Travel Mart (Japan Association of Travel Agencies) in Tokyo due to the row with its neighbour over another group of unhabited Islets lost somewhere in the East China Sea.

The absence of China at PTM is of course a major blow for PATA but little could be done to attract back Chinese buyers according to Martin Craigs, PATA CEO in an interview to PTM Official Daily. “That was their decision and we obviously can’t reverse it” he was quoted. It also explains why the PTM was officially opened by PATA Vice Chairman Rick Anderson from Tourism Vancouver instead of the PATA Chairman João Manuel Costa Antunes, also Head of Macau Tourism…

It might also send the wrong message to the tourism community. Over the last five years, China has mirrored to Asia –and the rest of the world- all the benefits to open up to Chinese outbound travellers. It is indeed difficult to resist to the possible financial boon that can bring over 70 million of travellers, especially known as enthusiastic consumers of luxury goods and services.

But there is also a darker side to it. China found in its 70 million of outbound travellers a new weapon of leverage over other countries. Excepted that the ideology has been replaced by harmless tourists armed only of their cameras and credit cards… But their power is as destructive as any weapon.  As soon as political or economic tensions arise between the powerful Asian giant and its neighbours, China officials advise its citizens to avoid visiting one country or another. They never called officially to a boycott but travel companies in China are keen to show their commitment to please China’s political nomenclature.  

Economic consequences are generally felt immediately. In the past, places such as Macau or Taiwan have already learned that it could be unwise to oppose the big brother. It is now the turn of Japan and the Philippines to experience a downturn in tourism as China’s tour operators and inviduals started to boycott both destinations.

However, there is probably a limit to China calls for travel boycott. Many countries might indeed take their distance from China. Which would also mean a loss of influence for the powerful empire. It will also force the stakeholders of the tourism industry to rethink their marketing policy and diversify the source of i travellers. At PTM Press conference, Philippines Secretary of State for Tourism Ramon R. Jimenez indicated that the Department of Tourism was consequently more active in Japan, Taiwan but also Southeast Asia in a bid to balance losses from China. Putting all eggs in one basket is anyway not the wisest of decisions.

And regarding PATA, the next PTM would probably celebrate again the presence of China. The show will in fact be hosted in Chengdu, the Sichuan capital…

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Luc Citrinot a French national is a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years experience. Based in Paris and Bangkok, he works for various travel and air transport trade publications in Europe and Asia.

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