Some in the Tour and Travel Industry Think So: After a brief reference to the current “trade war” between China and the U.S., in which each country has raised tariffs on goods that they import from each other, Yiling Pan, associate editor of Jing Travel—a publication that covers trends among Chinese travelers, especially luxury travelers—told delegates to NAJ’s RTO Summit East last week in New York that “if it keeps up, China is likely to have a travel ban on the United States.”
Some in the audience, which appeared to be paying close attention to Pan’s remarks, seemed stunned, although most appeared not to grasp what she said. So Pan rephrased her point, explaining that, if the back-and-forth trade war between the U.S. and China continues, “it could hurt sentiments about the United States” and result in a reduction of travel to the USA.
Recalling what Happened to South Korea: To bolster her point, Pan recalled developments over the past two years in which travel to Japan dropped following a confrontation between the two countries over China’s increased military presence in the South China Sea and Japan’s decision to increase its military spending and take steps to ensure its access to maritime routes in the South China Sea.
According to an item in the online news publication Quartz, “The South China Sea is the one of the world’s chokepoints for oil and natural gas. Nearly 60 percent of Japan’s energy supplies pass through the sea, largely from the Middle East nations, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and, increasingly, Iran. Coal from Indonesia also passes through, as does corn, wheat, and barley from Australia and the Black Sea region. That makes Japan’s economy vulnerable to disruptions, should China ever block shipments through that route, whether in peacetime or in some future conflict.”
The situation was tense enough in the fall of 2017 to trigger a decline in travel to Japan from China, a development facilitated, somewhat, by lingering negative attitudes toward Japan by many Chinese. According to a Pew Research Center survey at the time, 81 percent of Chinese held unfavorable views about Japan, up from 70 percent ten years earlier. At the same time, 86 percent of Japanese held unfavorable views of the Chinese, a substantial increased from the 71 percent who held such views a decade prior to the survey. As such, no official position by the Chinese was needed to turn Chinese travelers away from Japan. Only lately have inbound arrivals to Japan from China started to recover.
The THAAD Factor: What made the situation with South Korea markedly worse was that the Chinese government was loudly and consistently critical of South Korea’s decision to install the U.S.-developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in the country. THAAD is an anti-ballistic missile defense system designed to shoot down short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase (descent or reentry) by intercepting with a hit-to-kill approach.
South Korea refused to abandon its plans for the system and, finally, the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) in early March 2017 called travel agencies in Beijing for a meeting and gave them verbal instructions to suspend sales of all travel packages, both online and offline, to South Korea. As the following chart shows, the results were drastic.
But the situation has improved. According to an article last week in the Korea Herald, in February 2017, the number of Chinese arrivals came to 614,000 before nose-diving to 379,000 and 243,000 in March and April the same year, respectively. While China still opposes THAAD, diplomatic relations between the two countries—aided by a surge in Lunar New Year’s travel to South Korea, as well as visits by Chinese travelers to attend to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games—have improved. China has eased the ban and, the number of Chinese people visiting South Korea gained 16.5 percent from a month earlier to 427,628 in March. Compared to a year ago, March arrivals increased by 18 percent growth.
Could it Happen to the USA? If the “trade war” environment does not improve, Pan said, “we expect the same thing to happen to the U.S.” Few among the RTO Summit delegates seemed willing to venture an opinion on the probability, although Lian Liu, who heads up Hippo International, a marketing organization that specializes in promoting Chinese travel to the United States, noted that any ban would have to likely require an official government advisory to travel agents not to sell tours to the U.S. And, for the moment, that does not appear likely to take place.
Several delegates in the audience with expertise in the Chinese market tended to agree with Liu, with one pointing out that, were a travel ban within the realm of possibility, it would probably be preceded by a government-authorized campaign in the state-run news media that would be critical of the United States. And that has not happened … yet.