World awaits return of Chinese tourists: Sri Lanka expert

Jinith de Silva
China became the most important source of outbound tourists who were also the biggest overseas spenders.
Jinith de Silva

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, China was the world's most important source of international travelers, and Chinese tourists were the biggest overseas spenders. According to the United Nations' World Tourism Organization, Chinese tourists spent US$255 billion overseas and made 166 million overseas trips in 2019.

Tourism expenditure is an important criterion to determine the health of a country's tourism industry. With a population of more than 1.4 billion, massive increase in economic power and remarkable improvements in people's living standards, China became the most important source of outbound tourists who were also the biggest overseas spenders.

During the past three years, however, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many Chinese people to forgo international travel and cut household spending. But now that the suppressed spending power is likely to be unleashed thanks to China easing the prevention and control measures, there could be a huge explosion in spending by Chinese tourists.

The pace of China's reopening is of significance to the global tourism industry. Tourism officials and professionals in many countries are looking forward to the mass return of Chinese tourists as early as possible, because they could fuel the recovery of the tourism sector worldwide and promote cultural exchanges between China and the rest of the world.

Several Southeast Asian countries that depend, to a large extent, on tourism have kept entry rules relatively relaxed for Chinese tourists despite the recent COVID-19 outbreaks in China. They include Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. New Zealand, too, has waived testing requirements for Chinese visitors, who were the second-largest source of tourism revenue for the country before the pandemic.

After the establishment of diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and China, the two countries took a number of steps in the political, economic, trade and cultural fields to strengthen bilateral ties. Thanks to the strong bilateral relations, cultural familiarity and reliable visa policies, a large number of Chinese tourists visit Sri Lanka every year. In fact, China is one of the top three sources of tourists for Sri Lanka, with 167,863 Chinese tourist arrivals being recorded in Sri Lanka in 2019.

Tourism is the third-largest foreign exchange earner for Sri Lanka. The tourism industry of Sri Lanka, which was dealt a catastrophic blow by the pandemic, now has the opportunity to recover rapidly. And it is all set to welcome Chinese tourists, especially because the island country's government has adopted a series of new policies to attract Chinese travelers.

In order to draw more Chinese tourists, hotels in Sri Lanka have introduced Digital QR Chinese menus. Hotel experts say their intention is to make Chinese people feel welcome and provide the exquisite traveling experience for them.

Sri Lanka has been ranked first among the top 24 countries to visit in 2023 by travel site Travel Triangle. According to Travel Triangle, golden beaches, wildlife-rich forests, rolling tea plantations, and mist-shrouded mountains make Sri Lanka one of the best Asian countries to visit. Also, Sri Lanka is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

To begin with, there are the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura in the North Central Province, which flourished from the 5th century BC to the 10th century CE. There are also the ruins of the successor kingdom, Polonnaruwa (9th-14th century), and the incredible Sigiriya Rock fortress in the northern Matale district in Central Province.

The entire city of Kandy (the seat of kings from the 16th to the 19th century) with its revered temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as are the Dambulla caves and temple dating from the 1st century BC. Galle Fort, begun by the Portuguese in 1588, too, is on UNESCO's heritage list. The two natural landmarks on the list are the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and the Central Highlands (Peak Wilderness, Horton Plains and the Knuckles Conservation Forest.)

No wonder China's Ministry of Culture and Tourism has announced that Sri Lanka will be among the countries in its outbound tourism pilot program, which started on Feb 6.

Sri Lanka's tourism revenue fell precipitously in the past three years as the country more or less closed its borders during the pandemic. But, with China "reopening" after three years, millions of tourists are poised to travel across the world, raising hopes of a rebound of the hospitality industry and an increase in employment in Sri Lanka. This proves the importance of China to global tourism.

The resumption of outbound travel by the Chinese people, which used to be a considerable source of revenue for economies that depend heavily on tourism, will help revive the tourism sector and promote cultural exchanges at the international level.

The author is the president of Sri Lanka China Society.

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