Tourism to Australia: Why Australia needs Chinese tourists less than we think

They would pour off idling tour coaches at major attractions in groups of three dozen or so, flashing their homegrown UnionPay plastic with welcome abandon. Then, as quickly as they seemed to arrive, they would re-board and be off to the next attraction on their ever-crowded itineraries.

The millions of Chinese tourists that had become a beneficial and likeable feature of Australian cities and regional centres, always seemed innocuous enough. But, in reality, the money generated by Chinese tourism effectively represents one of China's rarely-utilised but effective soft power weapons.

Take the experience of South Korea. When Seoul decided in 2017 to deploy a US-made anti-missile system to defend itself from an unpredictable North Korea, which the People's Republic borders, China stridently objected, viewing the move as a threat to not only its own national security but also an affront to one of its few genuine allies.

Nearly overnight China, in a decisive protest, was able to switch off the siphon of Chinese tourists to South Korea at an enormous cost to the economy of one of the most important US allies. Being a totalitarian regime, China ordered travel agents to stop selling travel group packages of Chinese tourists to South Korea with the convenient flying time between Beijing and Seoul less than that between Sydney and Perth.

It was a demonstration of how the world's most populous nation can wield its economic power virtually in an instant and it offers a sober warning to Australia as well as presenting it with an opportunity.

A few weeks ago Cheng Jingye, the Chinese Ambassador to Australia, suggested the Chinese public may elect to not visit Australia in the future if the Commonwealth Government continued to advocate an independent inquiry into the source of the coronavirus in the so-called wet markets of China.

Ambassador Cheng said Australia's unwelcome diplomatic campaign would encourage Chinese tourists to have "second thoughts" about coming to Australia. This is despite the fact that these people only travel abroad with the consent of their government which controls every aspect of their lives. (China has since suspended imports from four large red meat abattoirs in Australia, raising concern of a campaign by Beijing against Canberra).

The South Korean experience, which left a nearly $US7 billion hole in the South Korean economy – roughly the value of tourism from China to Australia - offers a lesson not only for Australia but for the world on the fickle nature of the Chinese tourism dollar.

Chinese tourism now dominates global tourism, or did prior to COVID-19, its numbers adding to the overtourism woes that characterised pre-pandemic travel, and this with only a small fraction of China's population of 1.4 billion still allowed to travel abroad by the Chinese regime.

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Before the onset of the pandemic, 1.43 million Chinese visited Australia each year and spent almost $12 billion, more than travellers from any other country. After China came New Zealand with 1.38 million visitors with a large gap between the next biggest market, the United States at 789,000 visitors followed by the United Kingdom at 733,000, two markets battling to control the spread of COVID-19, the tourists of which are unlikely to return to our shores for a long time.

Now, with our borders closed and no international tourists allowed to visit Australia, is the time for us to wean ourselves off China as our main source of tourists and seek out a more diverse range of markets.

Our over-dependence on tourists from China, which to an extent mirrors that of the equally vulnerable university sector, has long been a concern among some tourism industry leaders.

They recall how Australian tourism was challenged by its too great a reliance on the Japanese market in the 1980s and 1990s, a market which has never recovered from its heady days when it was the No.1 source of tourists.

Of course, it's not going to be easy to diversify what will remain of our inbound market but Australia, along with New Zealand, will be better positioned than many other tourism destinations when the pandemic is over as it will likely be viewed as a safe destination which dealt effectively with the spread of COVID-19. Our perceived isolation, once considered a tourism weak point, may well prove a strength.

Indeed, it's no coincidence that Australia was recently invited by Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian Prime Minister, to become a member of the informal First Movers Group consisting of nations that have successfully tackled COVID-19.

Although Tourism Australia, the nation's inbound tourism marketing body, has switched its focus to domestic tourism in light of the pandemic, it and Simon Birmingham, the Federal Minister for Trade and Tourism, may want to utilise the potentially extended hiatus between the closure and opening of our borders to reduce our reliance on tourists from China and the potential for them to be used as a bargaining chip during strained relations between the two nations.

Anthony Dennis is the travel editor of  The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

See also: Think Chinese tourists are a pain? We're just as bad

See also: Revealed: The most popular places for China's 150 million tourists

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