While chilly political relations and negative stereotypes have prevented India from cashing in on China’s outbound tourism boom, the South Asian country hopes that a new set of film deals and warming ties will change that in the years to come.
During India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China earlier this month, deals were struck to create three Chinese-Indian co-productions, including a film based on the 2012 Chinese blockbuster Lost in Thailand that caused a surge in Chinese visitor numbers to Thailand. Entitled Danao Tianzhu in Chinese and Lost in India in English, the film will be created by Lost in Thailand’s scriptwriters and directed by the blockbuster’s star Wang Baoqiang. In addition, the film Kung Fu Yoga will feature Hong Kong director Stanley Tong and focus on a Chinese and Indian pair who search for lost Tang Dynasty treasure, while another movie called Xuan Zang will star actor Huang Xiaoming and tell the story of Chinese Buddhist scholar Xuan Zang’s journey to India.
If successful, the films can benefit India financially in several key ways. First, they will give India increased access to China’s lucrative yet highly exclusionary box office. Since China only buys 34 total foreign films every year, Indian films have largely lost out to major Hollywood blockbusters. Co-productions, however, are exempt from this quota and can be distributed freely in the China market, making them highly coveted by foreign studios.
In addition, India’s tourism industry is likely hopeful that the films will spark a Chinese travel boom in the way that offbeat comedy Lost in Thailand did for Thailand. The year the film came out, Thailand saw a 50 percent year-on-year surge in the number of Chinese visitors, up from 12 percent growth the year before.
Although Chinese traveler numbers are growing rapidly across Asia, India has been losing out on China’s outbound tourism boom despite the countries’ shared border. Last year, Asian countries saw almost 90 percent of over 100 million outbound Chinese trips, but India saw only about 174,000 Chinese visitors. Furthermore, this number was significantly less than India’s approximately 676,000 visitors to China during the same year.
One reason for these relatively disappointing numbers is simply Chinese stereotypes about India as unsafe, dirty, and less developed that China. A survey by Pew Research Center found last year that only 30 percent of Chinese respondents had a “favorable” view of India, while 55 percent had an “unfavorable” one. India is likely hoping that the new film deals will boost its “soft power in China” by reversing Chinese tourists’ negative ideas and remind them of historic cultural ties between the two countries.
These negative ideas are likely influenced by India and China’s often adversarial political relationship, which has gone hand-in-hand with a cumbersome visa application process for Chinese visitors. As the two countries have been working to improve relations with a series of high-profile official visits and lucrative investment agreements, one of their first orders of business has been to make efforts to fight stereotypes. According to a Jing Daily interview last year with Chinese travel writer Hong Mei, who wrote a book about her year traveling across India, “prior to this new era of bilateral trade and tourism, India really hasn’t existed in the minds of we Chinese. Part of that has to do with our government not wanting us to be aware of India due to their historically cool political relationship.”
The moves to improve relations have resulted in significant deals, and more importantly for tourism, easier visa access to India for Chinese nationals. Modi’s recent visit resulted in about $22 billion worth of business pacts signed between China and India, while Xi Jinping’s September 2014 visit to India saw deals for China to invest around $20 billion in India’s infrastructure. These closer ties have led to an easier visa application process for Chinese nationals: Modi announced during his visit that Chinese travelers will now be allowed to apply online for an e-tourist visa, which is likely to spur more growth in visitor numbers.
As relations have improved, India has been stepping up its marketing efforts to court Chinese travelers. This year has been labeled the “Visit India Year” in China, while the year 2014 was named by India’s Embassy in China as the “India-China Year of Friendly Exchanges.” Coinciding with this effort was a touring festival organized by India entitled “Glimpses of India” that promoted Indian culture across 12 Chinese cities.
The combination of improved relations, easier visa access, film deals, and marketing efforts is likely to lend a boost to India’s Chinese visitor numbers in the coming year. China’s box office numbers are already lending a sign that Chinese audiences may be warming to Indian culture. When China purchased four Indian films this year—the first time the number has ever reached that high—the satirical Bollywood comedy PK becomes the highest-grossing Indian film in Chinese box office history within 72 hours of its release, rising to second place for the top weekend earners and scoring a 94 percent “like” approval rating on Chinese social network Douban.
Since tourism and film are easy areas for reaching accord, they are set to be the earliest beneficiaries of China and India’s efforts to improve relations. But the tourism industry should keep a close eye on new developments—changing political situations have been known to have a significant influence on Chinese tourists’ travel habits, so future growth will likely hinge on China and India’s continued goodwill toward one another.