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Coronavirus ban puts quarter of Chinese tourism to Australia at risk

Analysts suggest that if the slowdown in Chinese students and visitors is prolonged, it could cost Australia’s economy US$543 million over the next two years. Photo: Handout. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Pan Pacific Agency | COMMUICATION AGENCY FOR PACIFICA REGIONS

SYDNEY, Jan 26, 2020, SMH. China has stopped its citizens from booking overseas tours as part of the country’s efforts to curtail the spread of coronavirus in a further blow to Australia’s beleaguered tourism operators, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

State media reported that the China Tourism Association had halted all domestic holiday hotel and flight bookings through travel agencies on Friday and announced on Saturday it would do the same for outbound tour groups.

Chinese tourists have become a fixture of Australian capital cities – including on
the jacaranda-lined streets of Kirribilli in Sydney – and have put billions into local economies.
Chinese tourists have become a fixture of Australian capital cities – including on the jacaranda-lined streets of Kirribilli in Sydney – and have put billions into local economies.CREDIT:EDWINA PICKLES

The move puts at risk about a quarter of the travellers Australia receives from China – its biggest international tourist market – every year and compounds the woes of operators who are already expecting fewer customers as a result of the bushfires.

The travel booking ban, which goes into effect on Monday, comes as Chinese authorities grapple with a public health crisis that has claimed 56 lives and resulted in almost 2000 confirmed cases.

About 1.4 million Chinese visitors come to Australia each year and spend almost $12 billion, more than travellers from any other country. Research from Tourism Research Australia, an official government body, found more than a quarter of Chinese travellers came with tour groups in 2017.

University of Technology Sydney tourism expert David Beirman said the ban was “incredibly serious” because of its timing over the Lunar New Year period, when about 60 per cent of Chinese tourism happens.

“This time of year is the absolute peak for Chinese travelling abroad and domestically,” Dr Beirman said. “If that tap was to be turned off, that would be pretty catastrophic at least in the short term for an Australian tourism industry that is used to having that as a major source.”

Hotels, restaurants, travel providers and attraction owners will have some cushioning because the ban takes effect prospectively and most bookings have already been made for the busy season.

Those travelling individually, on business, for official reasons or to study are also not covered by the ban, which is of unclear duration.

Margy Osmond, chief executive of the Tourism and Transport Forum, said that, while tour groups were an important market, independent travellers were an increasingly important segment of the market.

A Chinese embassy spokesman referred requests for comment to the state media reports.

But Philip Pearce, Australia’s first professor of tourism, said he expected the ban to be extended to different categories of travellers or ports or origin over the coming month as China grapples with the coronavirus’ outbreak.

“There is an incubation period of 14 days, so over the next month we could see an expansion of the problem,” Professor Pearce, from James Cook University, said.

“So flights out of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and other cities could be the subject of very intense screening.”

Australia’s tourism industry is already reeling from the bushfires, which forced the evacuation of regional tourist hot spots in Gippsland and the NSW South Coast, and tarnished Australia’s international image as a safe, clean destination with palls of acrid smoke.

Dr Beirman said he had seen industry analysis suggesting international flight bookings were already down by 30 per cent over December and January.

While Chinese travellers tended to spend most of their time in capital cities the fires have not reached, Professor Pearce said some was a “trickle down” to regional areas.

A Tourism Australia spokesman said it was “monitoring the situation closely”.

Ms Osmond said the Chinese ban underscored the importance of Australian domestic tourism and state and federal government efforts to support it.

Four cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Australia on Saturday – one in Victoria and three in NSW.

Federal Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said in a statement that the government was “aware of unconfirmed reports that Chinese officials have ordered travel agencies to suspend sales of international tours in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus”.

“We are urgently seeking clarification from Chinese officials via our embassy in Beijing on these reports and whether they include sales to Australia,” he said.

“Australia has well established measures and safeguards in place to deal with the threat of viruses including at our airports. These have in the past minimised the impacts of other viruses on our tourism industry by giving people confidence in the safety of visiting Australia.”

Nick Bonyhady is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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