Australia’s battered tourism puts hope in China’s reopening

Tourism-reliant businesses are hopeful the return of Chinese visitors will revive the sector from the pandemic slump.

Australia's pandemic-hit tourism sector is eagerly anticipating the return of Chinese visitors [David Gray/Reuters]

Sydney, Australia – CBT Holidays, a Sydney-based tour company, hopes the reopening of China’s borders will revive Australia’s tourism sector after a year of “surviving”.

The tour company lost access to its biggest market in 2020 when Australia and China both slammed their borders shut in response to the emergence of COVID-19. For much of 2021, CBT Holidays, which focuses on package tours to China, ceased operations altogether due to a lack of customers.

Despite Australia reopening to visitors in February 2022 and the efforts of many tour operators to pivot to domestic tourism, business stayed at a crawl for much of the sector last year.

While Australians remained locked out of China, Chinese arrivals to Australia dropped more than 95 percent from the 1.43 million visitors in 2019.

“Initially, we had some compensation from [the] Australia government and New South Wales government until probably one and a half years ago,” Eric Wong, product manager at CBT Holidays, told AL Jazeera.

“And [then] we just shut the business down.”

Now, as China reopens its borders from Sunday, potentially millions of Chinese, including tourists, students and business travellers, are expected to travel overseas to destinations such as Australia for the first time in three years.

“[It’s] good news, the Chinese border is open,” Jimmy L, the owner of CBT Holidays, told Al Jazeera, requesting he be referred to by his first name and an initial of his surname.

“More or less, the business will come… and then we can make the profit again.”

Still, he is cautious about how long it will take for business to bounce back, not least because of a lack of flights in and out of China and the prohibitive cost of fares.

“For example, before, the return ticket to China was about 1,000 Australian dollars ($688). And now [it’s] 8,000, 9,000 [Australian dollars] ($5,500, $6,200)… for economy,” he said.

Sun, the managing director of China Travel Service, another China-focused operator in Sydney, agreed.

There are currently only “a couple of flights” coming to Australia from China, carrying just a few hundred passengers, Sun told Al Jazeera, asking to be referred to by his surname.

While Chinese airlines are increasing flights to and from Australia, Australia’s national carrier, Qantas, has yet to announce the resumption of routes to China.

“I think that will change a lot… when the airlines increase the flight schedule… I think the people exchange between these two countries will be more and more frequent and then gradually go back to normal,” Sun said.

Beijing airport
China is reopening its borders after three years of tough pandemic controls [File: Andy Wong/AP]

So far, there has been little action from the Australian government to encourage travel between China and Australia, despite Chinese visitors accounting for 12.3 billion Australian dollars ($8.5bn), or one-third, of all tourist spending before the pandemic.

On New Year’s Day, Australia announced that travellers from China, including Hong Kong and Macau, would have to provide a negative COVID-19 test result prior to travel amid concerns surging cases in China could result in new and more dangerous variants for Australia.

The Australian government announced the measures – which followed similar moves by countries including India, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – despite advice from the country’s chief medical officer that new restrictions on travel were not necessary.

Beijing has condemned the measures, saying any COVID-19 control policy needs to be “proportionate” and “science-based”, without affecting “normal travel and people-to-people exchange and cooperation”.

Sun said he is not too worried about the tests preventing or dissuading some Chinese from making the trip to Australia.

“I think that’s fine… That’s very, very reasonable,” he said. “Even now, for Australian people or for the Australian-Chinese to visit China, they still need a 48-hours COVID test. It is the same.”

“Also I think we need time – the policy may change,” he added.

But Sun said there remains a lot to be done to encourage Chinese people to return to Australia en masse.

“We still need [to] reconnect with those hotels, those attractions, then get the new equipment, new contracts and then based on that we create a new product for the Chinese inbound customers,” he said.

“Also we need to reconnect with the Chinese travel compan[ies] to create the package tour product for Australian people [travelling to China] so that should take a couple of months for us to prepare for that.”

At the same time, Sun said he has learned from experience that it is vital for his business to continue expanding beyond China to ensure its future.

“We can’t put all the eggs in one basket,” he said, adding that CTS has already begun to expand.

In the meantime, companies like CTS are eagerly anticipating the return of Chinese visitors.

Sun said while he had expected China to eventually open its borders, he did not expect it to be so soon.

That’s why when everyone knows this news, especially in this industry, they’re very excited,” he said. “We’re very excited. [It’s] good news.”

Source: Al Jazeera