Overseas tourists turned away by pollution: report

By Wang Cong Source:Global Times Published: 2015-11-25 18:28:01

The number of overseas tourists to China continued to drop in 2014, making it the third straight year the figure has fallen, though the number has shown signs of recovering. Still, the domestic tourism sector stands in contrast to China's outbound tourism sector, which continues to grow rapidly and is sending billions of dollars to other countries and regions. Among factors such as a sluggish global economy and the fluctuating value of the yuan, China's poor air quality has largely contributed to the decline in inbound tourists.

A foreign kid sits on his father's shoulders at the Forbidden City in Beijing. File photo: CFP

When Winn Chen, a resident of Chicago, the US, arrived in Beijing two weeks ago, he was stunned by how much the city had changed since his last visit eight years ago.

"[During] this trip, my favorite part was probably discovering how truly cosmopolitan [Beijing] has become," said Chen, who was born in Beijing but grew up in the US.

Chen said he made the trip to Beijing "solely to take time off, relax, and not be a tourist per se but to actually live in Beijing as an adult."

Although he still has relatives in the city, he rented a room for himself in a hutong in Houhai, a historical and scenic neighborhood in Beijing, to live as an expat. He appreciated the hutong culture and enjoyed a modern Beijing, because of the tremendous hospitality in the city.

"[Hospitality] has never been a problem in China, the people are the best," he told the Global Times on Tuesday.

However, by the end of his two weeks in Beijing, the air pollution took a toll on him.

"That kind of became a sour point toward the end of my trip," he said.

Many other overseas visitors share Chen's sentiment about the air pollution. According to a tourism report released last week, air pollution is the main issue that has turned some people away from coming to China.

A slower fall

Although there has been some improvement, tourism to China declined in 2014, according to the latest report by the China Tourism Academy (CTA), a Beijing-based research institution under the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA).

The total number of overseas tourists to China shrunk 0.45 percent to about 128.5 million in 2014, according to the report. Although the number of tourists is still down, it isn't falling as fast as in previous years.

On the bright side, China is generating more money from tourism. Tourism revenue jumped 10.16 percent year-on-year to $57 billion in 2014, according to data released in August by the CNTA.

The CTA also noted that China has become the fourth most popular tourist destination in the world, after France, the US and Spain.

Room to grow

The contraction in inbound tourists stood in contrast to China's growing number of outbound tourists. In 2014, the number of Chinese tourists traveling overseas grew 19.49 percent year-on-year to 109 million. They spent $164 billion, a figure that is expected to grow by $100 billion by 2019, Bloomberg reported in February.

Meanwhile, China's inbound tourism sector remains "some distance" behind its Asian neighbors, especially Japan and South Korea. The number of tourists traveling to Japan and South Korea in 2014 grew 29.4 percent and 17 percent, respectively, the Chinese news portal yicai.com reported on Monday.

Although tourism to China will continue to "stabilize," it has more room to grow. But experts said many areas, which have contributed to the decline of inbound tourism, need to be improved.

The pollution issue

The CTA report said a sluggish global economy, geopolitics, intensifying international competition and fluctuation of the value of the yuan have all contributed to the decline of inbound visitors to China, yet the main issue was the air quality.

"Foreign visitors tend to be more sensitive about air quality than domestic tourists," the report said. "International media have even issued travel alerts about the hazy and foggy weather."

The CTA said the poor air quality has contributed largely to a low satisfaction rate from foreign visitors in China, which has dropped by 1.49 percent to 73.97, a reading that the association categorizes as "basic satisfaction."

Iris de Vette, a resident of Utrecht, the Netherlands, who visited Beijing last week, said she has never in her life experienced anything like the pollution in Beijing.

"The first day I was a bit surprised. At first it looked like a thick morning fog, and I did not realize that this was really smog. It was a bit unbelievable to me," she told the Global Times on Tuesday.

The hazy and foggy weather has been severe and persistent in the last couple of weeks in the northern part of the country, as central heating systems, which rely primarily on coal-burning furnaces, have been switched on for the winter.

Another point of view

However, some foreign visitors said the air pollution does not bother them as much because they are only here for a short period of time.

"The smog would be a problem for me however if I were to stay here for a longer period of time," said Tobias Hofland, a student from the Netherlands who has been studying in Beijing since August.

Hofland told the Global Times on Tuesday that he was "positively surprised" by the air quality. "It is nowhere as bad as I had expected, heard or read," he said.

However, Hofland and other foreign visitors hope to see improvements in air quality and other environmental issues.

A change in policy

Lin Wenbin, an analyst at the Analysys International, said the environmental issue is a major problem not only for inbound tourism, but for "many other things." The government has focused a lot on the issue.

Policymakers are drafting a law to tax polluters. It is likely the draft will be submitted to State Council, China's cabinet, by the end of the year, before being passed on to the National People's Congress in the middle of next year, China Central Television reported last week.

With measures like this, "the air quality will improve," Lin told the Global Times on Tuesday.

However, he noted the hazy and foggy weather is not the only reason that inbound tourism has been declining.

Lin said a rise in the level of consumption in China has also deterred some visitors, who are sensitive to cost and account for a large portion of overseas tourists to China.

A bright future

Lin said the number of inbound tourists will start growing again as China improves its national image, forms closer diplomatic ties with other countries and regions, and boosts cooperation in the tourism sector with countries such as the US.

Moreover, more and more overseas tourists such as Chen, de Vette and Hofland have become increasingly interested in the country and would like to visit again.

"I would love to go back to China," said de Vette. "There is a lot more to see and a lot more to be discovered."
Newspaper headline: Air grievances

Posted in: Insight

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