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Gulf expects China rebound as tourists return from isolation

Woman, Adult, Female Creative Commons/Flickr Chinese Tourists
China withdrew its advice to citizens against foreign travel in January
  • Overseas bookings during Chinese New Year up 540%
  • Chinese visitors to Dubai up 113% year-on-year
  • Expected to be Saudi’s third largest source market by 2030

The Middle East is likely to experience a surge in Chinese tourism this year, reminiscent of the earlier rebound witnessed from Europe and India.

China lifted its Covid-related travel restrictions in January, allowing Chinese tourists to travel abroad, without having to quarantine upon their return.  

Bookings for overseas travel during Chinese New Year soared by 540 percent compared with the same period in 2022, according to data from the Chinese travel site Trip.com.

Chinese exhibitors and travel professionals are making a return to the Arabian Travel Market 2023 event, which is being held in Dubai in May for the first time in three years.

“I am convinced that the Middle East will experience a surge in Chinese tourism, reminiscent of the rebound we witnessed from Europe and India in late 2021 and early 2022,” said Danielle Curtis, ATM’s Middle East exhibition director.

Curtis said she recently noticed a considerable amount of enquiries about ATM from travel professionals in China. “Although we would not expect the same volume of Chinese exhibitors and visitors we received in 2019, we are confident of healthy participation numbers this year,” she said.

China became the world’s top source market in 2019, with 155 million tourists spending more than $250 billion overseas. 

However, its isolation from the global market over the past three years has set the industry back by an estimated $840 billion, equivalent to 16 percent of the $1.7 trillion spent annually on global tourism, according to the UN World Tourism Organization.

Dubai received almost one million Chinese visitors in 2019, an increase of over 15 percent compared with 2018. While the 154,000 Chinese visitors Dubai welcomed over the first 11 months of 2022 was down 83 percent compared to the same period prior to 2020, it was up 115 percent year-on-year.

REUTERS/Thomas Peter
China’s inbound and outbound international flights in the week of March 6 rose more than 350% compared with last year. Picture: Reuters/Thomas Peter

Saudi Tourism Authority said on Tuesday it has successfully concluded its first roadshow in China. It held meetings with more than 300 trade partners and travel buyers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to promote Saudi as a leisure destination.

Saudi is aiming for 100 million visits annually by 2030, and China represents immense potential to help it achieve this goal as it is expected to be the kingdom’s third largest source market by the end of the decade.

Fahd Hamidaddin, CEO of Saudi Tourism Authority, said: “Saudi and China can cement our relationship through investment and close collaboration to meet our goal of welcoming four million Chinese visitors by 2030.”

According to Curtis, popular destinations such as Dubai, Saudi’s AlUla, Egypt and Jordan, which have been marketed to Chinese outbound business-to-consumer and business-to-business, should be in a strong position to benefit from the predicted rebound of Chinese visitor numbers.

Business travel is expected to be integral to the tourism revival. According to a recent survey by the Shanghai Institute of International Studies and PwC China, over 75 percent of Chinese businesses polled were looking to enter or expand their presence in the Middle East over the next three to five years. The UAE and Saudi Arabia topped the destinations for investors.

Earlier this month, China announced that it had reopened its borders to foreign tourists for the first time in the three years by restoring the issuance of all types of visas.

The country, which withdrew its advice to citizens against foreign travel in January, also added another 40 countries to its list from which group tours are allowed, bringing the total number of countries to 60.

China’s inbound and outbound international flights in the week of March 6 rose more than 350 percent compared with a year earlier, to nearly 2,500, according to Chinese flight tracking APP Flight Master.

However this number was still just 17.4 percent of 2019 levels.

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