© 2023 WLRN
MIAMI | SOUTH FLORIDA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Tourist sites around the world are preparing for a surge in Chinese tourists

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For nearly three years, China and its 1.4 billion people were cut off from the rest of the world by strict pandemic border restrictions. But China lifted most of those restrictions in December, and some Chinese people are preparing to travel again. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Dan Qi, an English literature teacher in Shanghai, had a singular thought when she heard restrictions were being rolled back.

DAN QI: The first thing that came into my mind was to replace my expired passport.

FENG: During the pandemic, China made it very difficult to get or renew passports to discourage people from leaving the country. But last month, Dan Qi got her new travel documents easily. Yet she's nervous as she contemplates traveling to London this year to visit her brother.

QI: I mean, we've all been locked inside, kind of locked inside for three years now. I mean, it's a bit scary to think about going abroad and doing all these things.

FENG: That's why most outbound Chinese travelers don't seem to be going far. Three-fourths of travel agencies surveyed by Chinese trade firms said their clients' top choice was Southeast Asia, which doesn't require negative COVID tests from travelers departing from China, unlike, say, the U.S. Liu Wei is a diving instructor based on Thailand's Ko Tao island. He's preparing for a busy season ahead for the first time in three years.

LIU WEI: (Through interpreter) We're fully booked, but we're still waiting on more flights to be scheduled from China. And we have several diving boat tours we sold before the pandemic we still need to fulfill.

FENG: In 2019 alone, Chinese residents made 155 million trips abroad and spent $130 billion in other countries. During the pandemic, that huge flow of global tourism was suddenly cut off. But the day after China announced the end of border restrictions, Trip.com, one of China's biggest booking platforms, saw bookings abroad jump by more than 250%. And that's got Robert Ravens excited. He manages Bridestowe, a lavender farm in Tasmania, which makes a purple lavender-stuffed bear called Bobbie.

ROBERT RAVENS: It created an absolute mania.

FENG: Because after the fragrant bear went viral in China, some 30,000 Chinese visitors a year started visiting Bridestowe.

RAVENS: We had to introduce a ballot system so that when you came in the gate you were given a ticket which allowed you to buy a bear. And people were trading tickets in our car park that would do it. It was mania.

FENG: Then in early 2020, China closed its borders, and all of a sudden Bridestowe was getting zero Chinese tourists, straining their finances. But now Ravens expects visitor numbers to jump again, and he's used the pandemic time to improve the farm, though he doesn't think Chinese tourist numbers will return entirely to pre-pandemic levels.

RAVENS: The world is begging for tourism, and so the competition from Japan and Thailand and, you know, all the classic Asian countries for the Chinese tourists is going to be intense.

FENG: Musk Wang agrees. He's a salesperson in Paris at a luxury French jewelry brand. Before the pandemic, 90% of his clients in France were Chinese, so he's seen his income drop about a third after China closed its borders. Many of his old clients say they're not in a hurry to travel to Paris yet.

MUSK WANG: (Through interpreter) People think less about luxury goods, as these are not their basic needs.

FENG: And more and more luxury goods are now sold directly in China. But Musk says business at his Parisian office is still brisk. Most of his new clients are American, and he says his brand is focused on winning back French customers. China is not currently their top priority.

Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.