Chinese tourism to Australia is still in the doldrums following a pandemic travel ban

<span>Balloons from Melbourne company Global Ballooning take to the early morning sky.  The company says the number of Chinese tourists is still down by about half compared to this time last year.</span><span>Photo: Matt Blyth/Getty Images<span> /span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/ /7e18ca15b9f8cf51fa67443e252209dd” data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/ /and/ theguardian_763/7e18ca15b9f8cf51fa67443e252209dd”/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Balloons from Melbourne company Global Ballooning take to the early morning sky. The company says Chinese tourist numbers are still down by about half compared to this time last year.Photo: Matt Blyth/Getty Images

In the two weeks either side of Lunar New Year, Mandy Ho, who runs a hot air balloon company in Melbourne, has a lot of balls in the air.

Most mornings before dawn, weather permitting, her fellow Chinese tourists fly from the vineyards of the Yarra Valley across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs to the park on the outskirts of the city. Interpreters ensure that nothing is lost during translation.

Ho has spent weeks preparing tourists and arranging buses to pick them up from hotels. She has already met some of them while running the company’s Mandarin smartphone app, website and Chinese social media channels.

But this year she notices a shift. Ho says the number of Chinese tourists is still down by about half compared to pre-pandemic levels. It’s a financial blow to the Global Ballooning company, as the Chinese market brings in about 50% of its customers.

“I expected a full recovery this year as this is the first year they can travel abroad for the Chinese New Year,” Ho said. “But the recovery is much slower than we expected.”

Ho is not the only tourism operator disappointed by the slow return of Chinese tourists. Figures from Tourism Australia show that 102,000 Chinese holidaymakers visited Australia in September 2023. Four years earlier, this number was 688,000 in the same month.

“I think there are a few reasons for that,” Ho says.

“The economy in China is not great and many people choose to go to Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia because they are visa-free. This is the first year they have been able to travel since the pandemic and they prefer short-haul flights.”

Ho’s analysis is supported by statistics from booking platform, which has reported a 30% increase in Chinese tourism to Southeast Asia in recent weeks, compared to 2019 levels. Also traveling to Hong Jong, Japan and South Korea have increased.

As Chinese tourists take their money elsewhere, Ho and other tourism operators have had to get creative.

“We weren’t trying to put all our eggs in one basket,” Ho says. “We have diversified our market and this year we are seeing a lot of people coming back from the United States, including from Taiwan and Hong Kong.”

‘We are not ringing the alarm bells yet’

Peter Shelley, of the Australian Tourism Export Council, an apex body for tourism operators, says many of his members are also disappointed but not panicking.

“If we’re honest, I think we were all hoping it would be a bit more lively. It was never going to be 100%, we were hoping it would be about 75%,” says Shelley.

“Are we concerned about it? I don’t think anyone has sounded the alarm bells yet. It is still early and we may be back to 2019 levels by the end of the year.”

Related: As China’s economy stagnates, Australia is bracing for the impact on the currency and tourism markets

Shelley says many Chinese consumers are now realizing that Australia is an expensive country to visit and fly to. This month there are about 170 scheduled flights between China and Australia. That is 86% of all flights during the same month in 2019.

Tourism Australia, a government agency that promotes holiday-making, knows what’s at stake. In 2019, Chinese visitors spent $12.4 million in Australia. The agency hopes tourism will return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year, despite Oxford Economics suggesting this won’t happen until 2025-2026.

“[While] With China travel reopening a year later than other markets, we are confident in its recovery as the market continues to steadily rebuild,” a Tourism Australia spokesperson said.

But some experts are concerned about anecdotal evidence over the past two weeks. Dr. Paul Stolk, senior lecturer in tourism at Newcastle University, said this Lunar New Year was a litmus test for the health of the Chinese market.

“This is the period when we should see a lot of activity,” says Stolk. “This period we are in now could be very telling in terms of whether we will see a recovery and where it will take place, including capital cities and regional hotspots.”

‘We are back to normal’

The Great Ocean Road – a long winding road that runs along the southeastern Victorian coastline over steep cliffs – is usually filled with busloads of Chinese tourists. For years, roadside signs have reminded Chinese tourists to drive in the left lane.

Before the pandemic, some restaurants in coastal towns along this route printed menus in Mandarin. After years of lockdowns, many business owners hoped that Chinese tourists would rush back to the coastline and help them rebuild.

Liz Price, general manager of Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism, acknowledges that the Chinese tourism market has been slow to recover in the region. But she says the past few weeks provide some reason for optimism.

“We have had some reports that numbers have increased over the summer and there has been some growth in the number of coaches doing day trips from Melbourne,” Price said.

Related: Chinese tourists are resuming group trips to Australia as relations between countries have thawed

This may be due to the fact that the Australian government reissued group visas for Chinese travelers in September. Dr. Maneka Jayasinghe, a tourism expert at Charles Darwin University, says this should lead to an increase in tourist numbers in the coming months.

Sally Cannon, who runs the Apollo Bay Bakery, about a two-and-a-half hour drive west of Melbourne, which claims to be the home of the Great Ocean Road scallop pie, is also optimistic.

Unlike Ho, Cannon has noticed an increase in Chinese tourists in the past two weeks. This also applies to other entrepreneurs closer to Melbourne, in Lorne. Cannon says she’s hopeful the numbers will continue to rise.

“Before the corona crisis, Chinese tourists were a big part of our business,” says Cannon. “We have been able to get by without them in recent years, but it is nice to see them again.”

“This is the first year since Covid where we feel like we’re back to normal. I just feel like it’s going to continue.”

‘It was like a green light’

As in many parts of the Australian economy, political tensions between Beijing and Canberra have had some impact on tourism. But analysts differ on how big the impact has been.

Tom Parker, the chief executive of the Australia China Business Council, says tensions may have played a role in tourist numbers leading up to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s trip to Beijing in November – the first by an Australian leader in seven years.

“Symbolism is important in China,” says Parker.

“This trip certainly symbolized a lot within China, including that it was okay to engage with Australia again. It was like a green light. These things are never said directly, but the visit, at that level of leadership, told a story.”

Shelley says the impact of the geopolitical tensions would have been more apparent if the borders had been open during the pandemic era.

“If we had talked about this a few years ago, I think the impact would have been quite significant,” Shelley said. “I have to say that the current government has smoothed things out, but there may still be an undertone of tension.”

Ho believes the enduring appeal of the Australian landscape will always attract tourists from China, regardless of the political climate. She just hopes they won’t wait too long to return.

“I definitely think they’ll be back,” Ho says. “There is just so much to offer. I am sure that by the end of this year the numbers will have increased.”

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