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Resurgence in Chinese travellers is boon for Gulf tourist traps

An estimated 155 million Chinese tourists spent more than $250bn on foreign travel in 2019 Creative Commons/PxHere
An estimated 155 million Chinese tourists spent more than $250bn on foreign travel in 2019
  • International flights from China up 540% since it lifted Covid controls
  • Emirates and Etihad Airways ramping up flights from Chinese cities
  • Gulf’s active marketing to the Chinese puts region in good position

Gulf markets closed lower on Wednesday over concerns that China’s 2022 economic growth slowed sharply to 3 percent, its second-worst performance since 1976, and its population fell for the first time since 1961.

However, the recent easing of travel restrictions by Chinese authorities is expected to result in an influx of tourists from the country to Arab Gulf states this year, despite Covid-19 infections continuing to rise sharply across China. 

Travel industry executives and organisations told AGBI the rewards of a recovery in outbound tourism from the world’s second largest superpower greatly outweigh the risks.

The number of international departures from China in 2021 stood at just 2 percent of the 2019 figure, according to GlobalData, a consultancy based in the UK. It has jumped by 540 percent since China scrapped most coronavirus controls last month.

Unlike many Western countries, most Arab nations have opted not to impose Covid-19 testing requirements on Chinese visitors.

At the same time, Dubai’s Emirates airline and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways announced this week they plan to ramp up flights from Chinese cities in the coming weeks.

Combined with the enormous pent-up demand for outbound tourism from the country, the Middle East seems well placed to receive Chinese visitors eager to travel this year.

“Before Covid became headline news in 2020, we saw the Middle East as a destination with particularly high growth potential for the Chinese outbound tourism market,” said Sienna Parulis-Cook, marketing and communications director at marketing solutions company Dragon Trail International in Beijing.

Tourist travel from China to the Middle East experienced strong growth in 2019, with a 14 percent increase in arrivals to the UAE during the first nine months of the year.

Oman recorded a 42 percent increase in visitors, and Jordan reported a 17 percent rise in the first half of the year.

“Saudi Arabia had just started issuing tourist visas and China was already its number two source market,” Parulis-Cook said.

“Destinations in the Middle East such as Dubai, Saudi’s AlUla, and Jordan have stayed active, with business-to-consumer and business-to-business marketing focused on China, putting them in a good position to benefit from the reopening.”

Saudi Arabia appears to be especially well placed to capitalise on China’s return to the international tourism market.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December, authorities announced that the kingdom would be granted the official Approved Destination Status needed to accept tour groups from China.

Hat, Clothing, Glasses
Before Covid hit, Chinese visitors to the UAE were up by 14 percent and China was Saudi’s number two source market for tourist visas. Picture: Creative Commons/Pixnio

The global tourism industry is on track to reach 80 to 95 percent of pre-pandemic visitor numbers by the end of this year, according to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

“At this point, the world is basically back to business as usual, without any Covid-related restrictions,” Parulis-Cook said.

This is largely thanks to the availability and administration of vaccines in many countries along with the development of antiviral therapies, which have significantly reduced Covid-19 infections and the severity of the effects.

The UAE was quick to adjust to the “new normal”. It launched several initiatives, including the formation of the Emirates Tourism Council in 2021, to boost its tourism sector and maintain its global popularity as a favoured destination. 

According to data from the Department of Economy and Tourism in Dubai, the city welcomed over 12.82 million overnight visitors between January and November 2022, compared to 6.02 million the year before and 15 million in 2019, pre-pandemic. 

While India, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UK and Russia were the top five markets, China was 17th, compared to fifth in 2019. While the 154,000 Chinese visitors Dubai welcomed over the first 11 months of 2022 was down 83 percent compared to the same period in 2019, it was up 115 percent year-on-year.

Given that China was the world’s largest source of outbound tourism before the pandemic, its withdrawal from the global market for the past three years set the industry back by an estimated $280 billion annually, equivalent to 16 percent of the $1.7 trillion annual total spent on tourism worldwide, according to UNWTO.

An estimated 155 million Chinese tourists spent more than $250 billion on foreign travel in 2019. Airlines and tour operators are therefore eager to welcome Chinese travellers back to the marketplace.

“Chinese tourists are vital to the global tourism market,” Parulis-Cook said. “The tourism industry cannot truly recover from the pandemic without the Chinese outbound market.

“Tourism in the Middle East has shown a strong resilience, having recovered to 77 percent of its pre-pandemic level in terms of international tourist numbers by September 2022,” a UNWTO spokesperson said.

“In some cases, like in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, data had already shown close to full recovery of international tourism receipts by the end of the second quarter of the year. Naturally, the contribution of the Chinese market would make such recovery stronger.”

Airport, People, Person
Countries including Qatar, Morocco, Israel, India, the US and the UK have reintroduced new entry requirements for Chinese visitors. Picture: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

The decision by Chinese authorities to ease restrictions on foreign travel by citizens coincides with the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant known as XBB.1.5, or Kraken. It is the most transmissible to date and could very well become the dominant strain.

Concerned by the spike in the number of reported infections in China, more than a dozen countries so far have reintroduced new entry requirements for Chinese visitors who travel directly or via another country.

These include the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Qatar, Malaysia, India, Israel, Morocco and several EU countries.

The Chinese government has condemned the rules as “discriminatory” and retaliated by suspending visa services at its embassies in Japan and South Korea.

Parulis-Cook said the new coronavirus variants should not affect existing travel regulations or be considered a serious threat to the rest of the world.

“This kind of situation would happen with or without China’s return to international travel, so we should not identify the return of this market as bringing special health risks that would not be able to develop in all of the other parts of the world where Covid-19 is now endemic.”