Now is the time to prepare for the post-virus wave of Chinese tourists

Lectures from SARS

by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt FRGS FRAS

On February 15th, 2003, the first group of 67 Chinese officially travelling for leisure arrived in Germany, based on the ADS Approved Destination System agreement China and Germany signed the year before, second in Europe only to the island state of Malta. For the rest of the Schengen Area the ADS agreement came only into force in September 2004.

Your humble editor had stopped a few years earlier to be an inbound tour operator for Chinese delegations and had just finished the first semester as a tenured university professor. Witnessing the high expectations of my former colleagues, all buying coaches, employing additional staff and moving into bigger offices, I wondered if I had taken the wrong decision to opt out of the business just before the biggest bonanza ever for the German China inbound tour operators, looking forward to enjoying a year without competition in Europe.

Unknown at the time, in November 2002 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) started in Guangzhou and spread to many countries in the world. On March 15th, 2003, the WHO issued a global alert about a new infectious disease, advising against any unnecessary travel to and from East Asia. On April 2nd, Chinese officials finally began reporting the severity and extent of the SARS outbreak.

As a result the second quarter of 2003 saw almost no Mainland Chinese citizen arriving in Germany, pushing several inbound tour operators close to bankruptcy. For the whole year, the number of arrivals however reached the level of 2002, and 2004 saw an increase of almost 40%, as many of the trips to Germany influenced by the SARS crisis were only postponed, not cancelled. Globally the same happened: From 16.6 million in 2002 the number of outbound trips jumped to 20.9 million in 2004 despite the three-month hiatus.

With the yet not fully named 2019-nCoV, things could turn out in a similar way, based on what is known until now.  On the one hand the disease is spreading much faster, given the much improved domestic and international transport infrastructure available in comparison to 2003, on the other hand the Chinese government reacts in a much different way to the crisis. Among many others, starting from the 27th of January, all group travel from China has to cease. Individual travellers however will have a bigger incentive than before to go abroad.

The biggest difference is clearly the fact that in 2003 outbound tourism was the least concern except for those few directly involved during the SARS crisis. In 2020 there are already articles published discussing the fate of the tourism industry of Thailand, Japan and other countries if the main source market China implodes.

Via an open letter of the CATS China Association of Travel Services published on the 26th, the international partners have been asked to “introduce relative refund and changes policies to minimize Chinese tourists financial loss”. How much this will remain a wish or will become a demand, is one of the many unknown factors in the 2019-nCoV development. The main concern remains of course to minimize the loss of life in China.

In all previous cases, being it SARS, MERS or the Lehman Brothers global economical crisis, demand bounced back stronger than before after two or three months. So it will be a good idea to use the time of the slowdown to train everybody involved in servicing Chinese customers, using the brand new CTT China Tourism Training.

Let’s hope that the Year of the Rat will have a better ending than this dire beginning and that all our readers, their colleagues, family and customers will stay healthy.

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt and the COTRI WEEKLY team

COTRI Intelligence

COTRI Intelligence is the indispensable source of weekly consulting, analysis, data and news for everybody seriously interested in the post-pandemic Chinese outbound tourism market and changing Chinese consumer preferences.  COTRI Intelligence is published by COTRI China Outbound Tourism Research Institute and edited by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt FRGS FRAS. Regional partners and Content partners [...]

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