With the Chinese government preparing to relax its strict travel restrictions on January 8, many countries in Southeast Asia are anticipating increased numbers of Chinese tourists, with a mixture of relief and dismay at possible transmissions of the virus.
Before the pandemic, China was the main source of foreign tourist arrivals to the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In 2019, the year before the pandemic, around 32 million Chinese citizens traveled to ASEAN, just shy of a quarter of total international arrivals. That number dropped dramatically to 4 millions in 2020, and China’s continuation of strict COVID-19 restrictions, including a mandatory two-week quarantine for those returning home from international travel, have prevented the expected rebound.
While the region’s economically critical tourism sector has recovered somewhat from a 2020 trough, the lack of Chinese visitors, who in some places accounted for a third or more of international arrivals, has left a wide gap. As an ING analyst noted in november“It is extremely unlikely that Asia-Pacific tourism can make a full recovery without a return of Chinese tourism.”
Since Beijing announced the easing of its travel restrictions, nations including the US, France, India, Japan and Australia have required passengers from China to be tested for COVID-19 before their arrival, distrustful of the Chinese government’s COVID-19 statistics and concerned about the possible spread of the disease. Chinese state media have described such efforts as “unfounded”, “discriminatory” and an attempt to sabotage the recovery from COVID-19 in China.
However, most Southeast Asian nations have avoided such restrictions, for obvious economic reasons. Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, a nation that prior to the pandemic derived about 25 percent of his export earnings from tourism, said this week that his country was an “attractive destination” for the Chinese and that he “would not require the Chinese to do anything, just come as normal tourists,” according to a report in the Khmer Times. Before the pandemic, Cambodia was receiving more than two million Chinese tourists a year, or nearly 40 percent of its total international arrivals.
The same is true of Malaysia, where the president of Malaysian Inbound Tourism Malaysia (MITA) said the government do not impose special restrictions about Chinese visitors arriving after January 8. “If Malaysia prevents the arrival of Chinese tourists, then the country will suffer a great loss,” said MITA president Uzaidi Udanis. “Neighboring countries like Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and others will be able to attract the market to their countries.” About 3 million Chinese citizens visited Malaysia in 2019.
Meanwhile, tourism authorities in Thailand say they are waiting at least five million Chinese tourist arrivals this year, nearly half the 11.5 million Chinese citizens who visited in 2019. The country’s national committee for communicable diseases has proposed to the Thai government that Chinese tourists arriving in Thailand will be treated as other foreign visitors, although they will need to present a vaccination certificate and be advised to take out health insurance before arriving in Thailand.
Indonesia has similarly announced that it will maintain its lenient policies towards Chinese visitors. “There is no immediate need to change the existing policy, but we will continue to monitor the situation,” said Wiku Adisamito, spokesperson for the Covid Task Force. told BloombergAlthough like all foreign travelers, arriving Chinese will need to show proof of full vaccination against COVID-19. In Vietnam, which 5.8 million Chinese visited in 2019, medical experts have urged the government not restrict the entry of Chinese visitors or require COVID-19 tests for people coming from China.
The only major exception is the Philippines, whose President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. last week suggested that could order COVID-19 test for incoming Chinese travelers, based on the advice of health professionals.
It is difficult to say how likely it is that these nations will experience further outbreaks of COVID-19 from Chinese visitors, especially given the Chinese government’s opacity about the scope and severity of the country’s current outbreak. But the fact that Southeast Asian countries are doing little to restrain the resumption of Chinese tourism speaks as much to their stunted economic recovery as to their desperation over the return of the Chinese tourist yuan.