I guess we have all seen, heard or experienced the notorious Chinese tourists – the flag-following groups with impressive photographic equipment, who seem to be everywhere. Although the first part of the description can be easily seen as stereotypical, the notion about them being ubiquitous seems to become more and more supported by actual numbers.
Apart from large amounts of tourists, China is also notoriously the primary source of international students, especially in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and UK. Naturally, Chinese citizens account for a substantial share of the globally mobile workforce as well. In general, as argued in a recent special report by The Economist, ‘China’s contribution to this mass movement has eclipsed all others’.
Indeed, the figures are impressive. According to some official estimations, currently the number of trips abroad taken by Chinese citizens, be it for tourism, studies or work, is well over 130 m a year. At the same time, currently only about 7 per cent of Chinese citizens have passports, which clearly indicates the untapped potential. By 2020 the number of Chinese travelersis expected to reach 200 m a year, and by 2030 Chinese are expected to constitute a quarter of international tourism.
Naturally, for China the continuous boom of travelers is a rather positive phenomenon, as it unleashes quite a few resources in infrastructure spending, for example, for bigger airports, railway connections and hotels. International students originating from China are a source for western know-how, and foreign subsidiaries, as well as joint business ventures, continue to expand the Chinese market at a global scale.
How does this extraordinary number of Chinese travelersimpact the rest of the world though?
Looking specifically at tourism, the principle seems to be simple – more tourists mean more benefits for the economy. According to a Bloomberg report, tourism is currently one of the strongest drivers of the global economy. The United Nations World Tourism Organization reports that as of 2016 Chinese touristsaccounted for almost a quarter of the money spent by outbound tourists, hence their influential impact on the industry. Thereof, it is not surprising that the travel and service industry tries to accommodate Chinese touristsmore, for example, by providing the typically Asian congee for breakfast in hotels, or pulling out Mandarin phrase books in luxury stores.
Yet, in spite of the economic gains for the destination countries of Chinese tourists, many see China’s outbound tourism, and a generally growing presence of Chinese citizens abroad, in a rather negative light. First of all, the perceived excess of Chinese citizens, or the potential of reaching it, creates resentment over extra competition and protectionist sentiments. Second, Chinese travelersare also under scrutiny for political and security concerns.
As a relevant Reuters article underlines, outbound tourism can be used by China as a ‘political tool’, a way of soft diplomacy. Given the impact of Chinese tourism on the receiving locations, it is not impossible that China can influence its international politics by influencing the flux of Chinese touristson specific territories. For example, South Korea seemed to experience the negative consequences of their decision in 2017 to deploy an advanced US missile defense system.
Finally, there are suspicions over espionagein the air… For example, in the beginning of this year Chinese telecommunication companies, joint businesses and even students, got under scrutiny in the U.S. Other governments such as Australia, for instance, also worry about China’s infiltration.
In short, it seems that the ubiquitous Chinese citizenabroad, although being so beneficial for China itself, is currently creating more uncertainty and scrutiny than any other feeling in others. Is it a mixed blessing after all?