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Visitors takes a guided treetop tour of UBC's Greenheart Canopy Walkway on Aug. 22, 2008. The recent Chinese Traveler Sentiment Report suggested that, although more than 60 per cent of survey respondents said they wanted to travel outside their country in 2023, Canada is not on their priority list.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Chinese tourists are slowly returning to destinations around the world, but British Columbia isn’t expected to see a surge of them any time soon. That’s a result of few international flights from China, no planned group tours to Canada and the impact of geopolitical tensions between the two countries.

Three years into the pandemic, China made an abrupt U-turn in its zero-COVID policy and announced the reopening of its border. Starting Jan. 8, the country scrapped quarantine rules for international arrivals, simplified testing and entry requirements and resumed issuing passports for “non-essential” purposes such as leisure travel.

The pent-up demand for outbound travel among citizens in mainland China is massive. However, the recent Chinese Traveler Sentiment Report by travel analyst Dragon Trail suggested that, although more than 60 per cent of survey respondents said they wanted to travel outside their country in 2023, Canada is not on their priority list. Instead, the top seven destinations were in Asia, followed by France, Australia and Russia.

During the Lunar New Year, Ctrip, China’s largest online travel agency, saw outbound travel bookings increase by 6.4 times compared to the last year, with Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, as the biggest draw.

B.C. did experience a temporary increase in bookings, from Chinese travellers who mainly came to visit relatives and friends, but a full recovery for the once-popular destination may take years. Destination B.C., a Crown corporation responsible for marketing the province to tourists, notes in it’s latest Outlook Report that the number of visitors from China is unlikely to recover to the pre-pandemic level until 2026.

The main reason for the slow recovery is related to the limited international flight capacity, according to Monica Leeck, Destination B.C.’s manager of market development for Asia Pacific and Mexico.

“Before the pandemic, we were about 60 flights a week from Chinese cities to Vancouver specifically, but even more to other areas of Canada,” Ms. Leeck said. “But at the moment, we’re sitting around 10 flights a week to Vancouver.”

Ms. Leeck told The Globe and Mail that many airlines cut flights and let their staff go during China’s long lockdown, and it will take time for them to recruit replacements, deploy airplanes and rebuild the routes between China and Canada.

“This logistical barrier is going to really affect the decisions of consumers,” she added.

Limited flight capacity means pricey tickets, which further deterred Chinese tourists. According to Google Flights data, round-trip flights to China from Vancouver are currently running at around $3,000 to $3,500.

Another hindrance to Chinese travellers, Ms. Leeck suggested, is Beijing’s COVID-era ban on overseas group tours since January, 2020. Although the country’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism recently announced a pilot program to resume outbound tours to 20 countries starting Feb. 6, Canada is not on the list of approved destinations and therefore is not being actively promoted.

The 20 destinations are primarily in short-haul or Asia Pacific areas but also include countries in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Central Europe, such as Switzerland and Hungary.

Chinese travellers are also sensitive to geopolitical tensions, which could affect their choice of destinations, said David Lin, the president of Richmond, B.C.-based GS Travel, which predominantly catered to the Chinese market before the pandemic.

He said recent allegations of China’s air and maritime surveillance attempt and election interference were the latest issues to sour Canada on Beijing. Meanwhile, Global News, a Chinese state-run outlet, is accusing Canada of “following in the U.S.’s footsteps” to “ramp up anti-China moves.” Until now, the Chinese Embassy in Canada hasn’t resumed issuing visas to China for travelling purposes.

When Canada joined a handful of countries to implement travel restrictions for tourists from China amid China’s COVID surge, Chinese mainstream media described these rules as a form of “foreign revenge, discrimination against the Chinese and political conspiracy.” Thailand, in comparison, welcomed Chinese tourists – three Thailand ministers even personally greeted Chinese tourists with flowers and gifts at Bangkok’s international airport.

Dragon Trail’s report suggested that 21 per cent of survey respondents in China cited “destinations unfriendly to Chinese travellers” as one of the reasons why they are not going abroad. Dragon Trail surveyed 1,058 mainland Chinese travellers about their plans for 2023.

Mr. Lin, the travel agent in Richmond, B.C., told The Globe that, prior to the pandemic, around 75 per cent of his customers were mainlanders, but now the number has dropped to 5 per cent.

“So far, we haven’t seen any increase in bookings from mainland travellers. Travel agencies like us are still waiting for them to come back,” said Mr. Lin.

“We were very excited when the reopening news came out. But now I’m conservative about the rebound,” he added.

As Chinese tourists stay away, some B.C. travel agencies have pivoted to new markets. Roy Chou, the managing director of Vancouver-based travel agency LUXE Tours, told The Globe that he had pulled advertising money from China to instead target emerging international markets, such as Japan and Taiwan – as well as domestic travellers.

Despite the current hurdles, Ms. Leeck believed that the Chinese market remains robust.

“One of the first reasons why folks from China will want to travel to Canada is to visit friends and relatives that they haven’t seen for a long time,” Ms. Leeck said. “That’s how it’ll start, and then as things open up, we’ll see more leisure travellers.”

Before COVID, China was the second-largest international market for B.C., sending more than 300,000 Chinese visitors to the province in 2019. During their stays in B.C., Chinese visitors on average spent roughly $2,021, ranking first among international travellers. As Chinese tourists often travelled during their national holidays, they contributed a lot of revenue to B.C. tourism during “lower seasons,” namely the fall, winter and spring, said Ms. Leeck.

“We’re all super happy that restrictions have lifted almost in all cases, that people will start travelling again and that we can welcome them to B.C. and Canada,” said Ms. Leeck.

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