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opinion

“Outrageous,” Conservative foreign-affairs critic Erin O’Toole grumbled.

“Our priorities are screwed up,” NDP MP Nathan Cullen complained.

The object of their fury was this Friday’s sold-out gala dinner at a downtown Beijing hotel, capping a day of activities promoting Canada to Chinese tour operators.

The Canada Day in Beijing event was organized by the Canada China Business Council and partly sponsored by Destination Canada, a federal Crown corporation that promotes tourism in key markets around the world.

Both opposition parties wanted the gala cancelled because of the continuing feud between the two countries over last December’s detention in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of U.S. authorities.

Relations have spiralled downward in the months since. China has jailed two Canadians – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor – and blocked imports of Canadian canola and other agricultural products.

In spite of all that, the last thing Canada should do is give up on China. It is our second-largest export market and No. 2 source of tourists behind the United States.

The federal government should boost tourism promotion, not retreat, if it wants to counter anti-Canada propaganda in China.

Of course, Ottawa should continue to press Beijing at every opportunity to release Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. And we should also apply whatever leverage we have to get Beijing to play by international trade rules, perhaps by challenging the canola ban at the World Trade Organization.

But suspending the promotion of Canada as a tourist destination to the most populous country in the world would be a self-inflicted wound.

Our fight is not with the Chinese people or their travel dollars. Canada’s image in China remains generally positive, in spite of the poisoned diplomatic relations. A record 682,000 Chinese visitors came to Canada last year, injecting $1.6-billion into this country’s tourism industry. And every fall, tens of thousands of new Chinese students enroll at Canadian colleges and universities.

The bad diplomatic blood between Canada and China apparently hasn’t affected inbound travel. And that’s in spite of a recent warning from the Chinese government, urging its citizens to “fully evaluate risks” before travelling to Canada. Arrivals from China increased 1 per cent the first three months of this year, even as the numbers of visitors from other key markets declined, according to Statistics Canada. U.S. visitors fell 3 per cent, Japan 4 per cent and Britain 22 per cent over the same period.

Our relationship with China is a long game. We would only hurt ourselves by letting Canada’s brand deteriorate in China. Now is precisely the time we should be scaling up our efforts, rather than going into a self-imposed cocoon.

Keeping up the flow of Chinese tourism will also help offset the trade losses we’re suffering because of China’s apparent retaliation over the arrest of Ms. Meng. Exports to China were down 6.2 per cent in April, compared with the same month last year. That reflects the impact of tumbling canola exports and restrictions on other agricultural products.

Record stocks of unsold canola are piling up in Canada. And that is exacerbating Canada’s already large merchandise trade deficit with China. Last year, Canada sold $27.6-billion worth of goods to China while importing $75.5-billion.

The money Chinese tourists spend here is tallied as service exports for Canada. The more tourism, the lower the overall trade deficit. It’s an economic bonus during trying times. And if they don’t come here, they’ll spend their money somewhere else.

The Conservatives’ Mr. O’Toole told The Globe and Mail recently that “we should not be acting like ‘situation normal’ ” with China.

Wrong.

Yes, we should be wary of China. We should stand up for our rights and defend our interests.

But if Chinese tourists want to spend their money here, we should do whatever is necessary to keep them coming. That’s common sense. Doing otherwise would compound the economic pain China is trying to inflict on Canada.

Perhaps some people think it’s wrong to offer up a taste of Canadian lobster, beef and music to Chinese tour operators at a Beijing gala.

If it helps keep the flow of tourists coming, party on.