While some Chinese visitors may be curious to experience a presidential election firsthand, data suggests that U.S. presidential elections may scare Chinese tourists away from visiting the United States during election time.
Chinese visitors, foreign to the concept of directly elected presidents, may find the 2016 presidential election a curious display of American democracy at work—but tour groups are likely to arrive in smaller numbers around election time. If history is any guide, November could become this year’s worst-performing month for Chinese tourism to the United States.
Sure, historically unpopular presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton running for what many commentators are calling the worst election ever could serve a powerful tool for the legitimacy of the Chinese government—giving the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) little reason to curb tourism. In fact, Hong Kong Free Press went as far as calling the election a “gift for Chinese propaganda,” and pointed to a 2013 Chinese government memo that framed Western constitutional democracy as one of the top threats to CCP rule.
In a different 2016 election, Taiwan elected the independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen in a landslide victory, causing negative Chinese tourism aftermath that is still a hot topic in Taiwanese politics. However, the first blow came even before her election, as the CCP discouraged visits during the election, causing visitor numbers to plummet. Taipei-based tour operators quoted by the Taipei Times reported that they had seen numbers drop by 50 percent in the weeks leading up to the election. Independent travelers, on the other hand, were attracted by the prospect of experiencing the election first hand.
“The atmosphere in society has been highly politicized. Mainland tour groups will consider their own interests and tourists to Taiwan will consider the travel environment,” said An Fengshan, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, describing the situation in a news segment that was broadcast on Chinese state TV.
Even though China’s relation to Taiwan’s elections is more sensitive than to that of U.S. elections, An’s statement certainly also rings true for the atmosphere surrounding the looming U.S. election.
To bring some clarity to the matter, Jing Travel investigated how Chinese tourism to the United States performed during the election month in 2008 and 2012 by analyzing monthly arrival data provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Chinese tourism growth rate (year-over-year)
Average monthly growth
Difference between November and average monthly growth
(Data for 2007-2009 include Hong Kong passport holders)
What we can tell from the data is that November, in general, is a worse performing month than the average—with Chinese tourism growth rate during November generally lower than the overall growth rate of Chinese tourism to the United States. Excluding the tumultuous period that surrounded the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the November 2012 performance proves a strong case for Chinese tourists avoiding the United States to a higher degree during election years. In fact, even when taking the 2008 election year into account, it shows a weak performance in November, which quickly rebounded in 2009—despite it being the year with overall slowest Chinese tourism growth to the United States in the last decade. Indeed, the two worst performing November months on record are during election years.
However, there are reasons to be more optimistic about Chinese tourism performance during this election year. For starters, China may have perceived the atmosphere surrounding the election to be beneficial to its own propaganda purposes, and therefore not carried out any efforts to dampen visits to the United States in November. Perhaps more importantly, independent travelers represent an increasing share of Chinese tourists to the United States—and tour groups are usually the subjects of government restrictions on tourism, as was the case of Taiwan’s election. As a result, Chinese independent travelers are among the targets for Taiwan’s post-election efforts to reinvigorate its tourism industry after the Chinese government put curbs on group travel.
While dampened tourist arrivals around the U.S. presidential election may be an interesting display of politics’ influence on Chinese tourism, the overall effects on Chinese tourism to the United States is limited—2012 was, in fact, the best performing year, growth-rate-wise, in the last decade.
For Chinese tourists, safety is the greatest concern, so a stable transition of government will be more detrimental to Chinese tourist arrivals than the election itself. As destinations such as Hong Kong, Thailand, and Egypt can attest to, widespread protests and threats to stability serve hard blows to Chinese tourist arrivals. Election-day violence, terrorism threats, and the aftermath of a potential failure to recognize the election result of Mr. Trump or his alt-right supporters will undoubtedly prove a bitter end to the 2016 U.S.-China Tourism Year.