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Visa-free travel boosts Southeast Asian tourism

Industry bounces back from slump, with Chinese spending habits driving growth

By Prime Sarmiento in Hong Kong | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-01 07:15

Tourists visit the Merlion Park in Singapore on Dec 21, 2023. The mutual visa-exemption agreement between China and Singapore, effective from Feb 9, 2024, is set to further boost people-to-people exchanges. XINHUA

An influx of Chinese travelers in the past few months has enabled Southeast Asia's tourism industry to recover from the pandemic-induced slump, analysts say.

While China has long been one of the key travel markets for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, decisions made by Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand last year to waive entry requirements for Chinese tourists bolstered tourism receipts in the first two months of this year.

Visa-free access for Chinese tourists is a "facilitating factor" in boosting ASEAN tourism industry receipts, said John Paolo Rivera, associate director of the Dr Andrew L. Tan Center for Tourism at the Asian Institute of Management in the Philippines.

Chinese tourists are the biggest spenders among travelers in Southeast Asia, Rivera said.

"Alongside the volume of Chinese tourists, the Chinese spending habit has driven consumption spending and the tourism contribution to GDP" in Southeast Asia, he said, noting tourist spending has helped the ASEAN travel industry to recover from losses posted during the pandemic.

Chinese tourists' spending has perhaps created the biggest influence on Singapore.

Official figures showed international visitor arrivals in the city-state reached 13.6 million last year, with China among the top three source markets. Tourism receipts reached $15 billion in the first nine months last year, and Chinese tourists were the biggest spenders with their total receipts hitting more than $1.7 billion, the Singapore Tourism Board said.

Flight connectivity

The board expects the tourism sector's recovery to continue this year through improved global flight connectivity and the implementation of the mutual 30-day visa-free travel between China and Singapore that started on Feb 9.

Yu Hong, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, said the mutual visa-free agreement has boosted the number of Chinese visitors to Singapore, especially during Spring Festival.

Singapore has always been a popular destination among Chinese tourists because of its geographical proximity, cultural similarities and the presence of many direct flights to and from Chinese cities, Yu said.

In Malaysia, officials welcomed passengers aboard China Eastern Airlines' inaugural flight on March 16 from Kunming in Yunnan province to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

Manoharan Periasamy, director-general of the Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board, said in a statement that this new route provides a "great opportunity" to bring in more Chinese tourists, especially after the visa-free policy took effect on Dec 1.

This year, Malaysia is eyeing 27.3 million international tourist arrivals, with 5 million expected to come from China.

Meanwhile, 3.96 million foreign tourists arrived in Thailand from Jan 1 to Feb 8, with those from China topping the list with 730,747 visitors, Thai government spokesman Chai Wacharonke was quoted in media reports as saying.

On March 1, the number of Chinese tourists to Thailand was up more than 30 percent compared with the corresponding period a year earlier, according to the online travel agency Trip.com, Xinhua News Agency reported.

Qin Jing, vice-president of Trip.com Group, said the implementation of mutual visa exemption in March holds significantly positive implications for the growth of tourism in both countries.

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