March of the Middle Kingdom: South-east Asia banks on tourists from China

Tourists from Shanxi in Chinatown Food Street. Visitors from Tier 2 cities prefer to buy jewellery and traditional medicine.
Tourists from Shanxi in Chinatown Food Street. Visitors from Tier 2 cities prefer to buy jewellery and traditional medicine.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Numbers expected to rise with growing wealth fuelling middle class

Chinese tourists are flocking to South-east Asia, attracted by the region's cultural familiarity and myriad of leisure and dining options, giving a major boost to the tourism industry. Experts believe the numbers will grow even faster if the region works together to attract them.

In 2015, close to 18.6 million of them came - making up about 17 per cent of the total number of visitors to Asean, according to the latest data published last month by the 10-country bloc.

They accounted for about 12.4 per cent of tourist numbers in 2014.

Excluding intra-Asean travellers, China is the region's largest source market for visitors, followed by countries in the European Union, South Korea, Japan and Australia.

With growing wealth in China fuelling a burgeoning middle class, the trend is expected to continue, industry watchers said. While Chinese tourists used to come mainly from key cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, the number of visitors from so-called "Tier 2 cities", such as Chengdu or Nanjing, is growing.


To meet growing demand for Asean-China flights, budget airlines and full-service carriers are not just adding services but new destinations as well. Changi Airport, for example, is linked to about 30 cities in China - more than any other airport in South-east Asia.

From fifth place, China moved to become Changi Airport's third-largest country market last year - after Indonesia and Malaysia - with a 15 per cent jump in traffic.

Across the Causeway, 1.75 million Chinese tourists visited Malaysia last year - more than triple the 530,000 a decade ago - and spent RM5.7 billion (S$1.8 billion). Chinese tourists top the list of foreign visitors to Indonesia, with more than 1.4 million visiting last year. Over in the Philippines, there were 630,300 tourists from China from January to November last year, but the two governments plan to reach the million mark this year.Thailand is the favourite regional spot with Chinese tourists - with 8.76 million visits last year.

As the demand for air travel continues to grow not just in China but globally too, Asean countries should work closely to package multi-city tours and itineraries for example, to woo more travellers to the region, experts said. A popular combo among Chinese travellers is Thailand-Malaysia-Singapore, they added.

Convenient air, rail and road access across the region helps, said Dynasty Travel spokesman Alicia Seah, adding that the future high-speed rail link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur should boost visitor numbers.

Mr Tony Fernandes, group chief executive officer of Asian low-cost carrier giant, AirAsia, told The Sunday Times that fewer visa restrictions within the bloc will also help boost Asean travel and tourism.

"In an age of isolation and anti-global sentiments being championed by some, it would be fantastic for Asean - a market of 700 million people - to move as a single entity. I continue to push for a single Asean visa and I conti-nue to push for free access within the region," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 26, 2017, with the headline 'S-E Asia banks on tourists from China'. Print Edition | Subscribe