Encouraged by the rising tide of Chinese outbound tourists engulfing Thailand, South Korea, and Japan, Southeast Asian nations have spent heavily to attract what has become the world’s largest-spending outbound tourist bloc. However, with Chinese tourist flows to countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines drying up, Southeast Asia is finding that putting its eggs all in the China basket may not have been the most sustainable strategy.
According to the FT, with the exception of Thailand—which remains massively popular owing to visa-free travel, cheap flights and accommodations—in the first three months of 2015 the number of Chinese visitors to Southeast Asia dropped to 1.5 million, down from 1.9 million one year before.
This reflects a drawn-out trend. Excluding Thailand, Chinese tourist arrivals in Southeast Asia decreased to 6.2 million in 2014 from 6.4 million in 2013.
Tourism industry observers note a range of factors discouraging Chinese travelers from heading to Southeast Asia, from political tensions (ongoing territorial disputes and occasional anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam and the Philippines) to high-profile air disasters like Malaysia Airlines’ flights MH370 and MH17 and AirAsia Indonesia’s QZ8501. Other factors also play in, connected to the preferred activities of Chinese tourists abroad—shopping among them. Buying that coveted Louis Vuitton handbag at 161 Đồng Khởi doesn’t sound quite as exotic as buying it on the Champs-Elysées.
So where are they going instead? Chiefly, East Asia and Thailand. Chinese arrivals in East Asia rose 38 percent in the first three months of the year, with Japan in particular benefiting from a weaker yen and relatively good Sino-Japanese relations. Despite a fluctuating currency and a Chinese tourist visitor number slump from the MERS outbreak, South Korea, too, has been a leading draw this year—the country topped famously friendly Thailand as the most welcoming country for Chinese tourists in a recent Hotels.com poll. Now that South Korea’s Prime Minister has declared the end of the MERS outbreak, the country likely won’t have much trouble seeing Chinese tourist growth numbers rebound.
But Chinese tourists aren’t just skipping Southeast Asia for South Korea. In addition to flocking en masse to Europe, and cities like Los Angeles and New York, more adventurous travelers have been appearing in rising numbers in place like Turkey and the South Pacific.
Turkey has made strong overtures to the China tourism market in recent years, efforts that seem to be working. Despite fears that recent anti-Chinese protests would hurt the tourist trade, Turkey has seen Chinese arrivals increase 48 percent in the first five months of the year to 106,000. The country’s future prospects remain to be seen: after China issued a travel warning for Turkey earlier this month, Turkey’s officials are trying to downplay the impact that the protests will have on Chinese visitor numbers, but political incidents have been known to influence Chinese travel habits.
But it’s a surge in Chinese travel to the South Pacific that has been arguably the most surprising. In the first quarter of 2015, 41,679 Chinese visited the region, a staggering 151 percent increase year-over-year. Sixty-three percent of those travelers visited Palau, which attributed the resulting 72 percent YoY boost completely to the opening of direct flights to Hong Kong and Macau. In many ways, this “sun and sand” boom is unsurprising, as Chinese travelers are the top foreign market for the Maldives, and islands like Saipan and Guam have seen strong growth as well.
Although recent figures and spending have been good for some countries and not-so-good for others, anybody who has watched the Chinese tourism industry for any length of time knows that these trends can (and will) change on a dime. There’s always the risk of a flareup in Sino-Japanese relations (or Sino-Korean relations) that causes Chinese travelers to plummet for a year or two—as was the case in Japan three years ago. A popular Chinese movie could depict a romantic getaway to Malaysia or Vietnam, spurring a wave of doe-eyed travelers. Devastating cyclones could cool Chinese tourists on travel to the South Pacific.
What Southeast Asia is learning now is that China should remain its most important market, but not one for which it depends solely upon.