Tourism mirrors geopolitics, and as China re-opens we’ll see how it feels about Australia

The re-opening of China could be a litmus test for the superpower’s relationship with Australia, as

The re-opening of China could be a litmus test for the superpower’s relationship with Australia, as tourists from the mainland decide whether to travel south for holidays.

China was considered Australia’s top tourism market before the pandemic, with visitors from there spending around $10.3 billion here every year. That overwhelmed the value of other nations’ travellers.

As China and Australia’s relationship worsened into a so-called “trade war”, the impact of this on the crucial trade relationship of tourism was masked by the pandemic’s closed borders.

Benjamin Herscovitch is a research fellow at ANU that studies Australia-China relations.

“Certainly, the Chinese government has a range of mechanisms by which it can direct tourists away from certain countries or to certain countries based on political considerations,” Herscovitch says.

“China is such an important source of international students and tourists for countries like Australia, that those signals will be particularly potent when you’re directing either tourists or students away from Australia.”

Now, the world’s second-biggest economy is allowing its people to travel again.

Tourism operators across Australia that once saw great monetary value in travellers from mainland China are essentially starting off from zero as the superpower re-opens in 2023.

The Australian Open that just passed offers a microcosm example.

People from China used to be in the top five international market buying tickets to the Grand Slam. Data supplied to ABC News from the Open show they were barely present this year.

Instead, the major ticketholder groups were the US, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and Singapore.

While these nations that have already reopened to the world have helped the Australian Open recover its pre-COVID international market to around 6 per cent of overall visitation, it is still down 5 per cent on the the loss of tourists from China and also significant market Japan.

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics replicates the trend at the Australian Open when you look at short-term visitor arrival data in recent months.

The latest short-term visitor data from November showed that people from markets like New Zealand, the US, UK and India were coming back to Australia in almost pre-pandemic levels. China was no longer in the top 10 as it remained closed.

a graph showing a line that peaks quickly and then starts to plateau or slow down
The latest short-term visitor data from the ABS showed that, as of the month of November, people from markets like New Zealand, the US and India were getting back to pre-pandemic levels. China was no longer in the top 10 as it remained closed.

Now China is reopening to the world after abandoning its COVID zero policy, travel agents like Christine Zhang are anxious for the Chinese tourism market to bounce back too.

She argues that the market is still a key one for Australia and can’t be replaced by others, especially if you go off the sheer amount that people from her birth country would spend when they visited here pre-pandemic.

Data from AUSTRADE shows the average Chinese visitor spent $7,700 here – more than double the spend of those from India and several times that of other key markets like the US and UK.

“They have a different culture. They spend money,” Zhang says.

“They will spend a couple of thousand dollars buying gifts for their friends and families.”

About 30 per cent of Chinese tourists were coming here in tour groups. 

Zhang, who used to organise those sorts of tours, remembers how people would come here and splash out on the experience of a lifetime, like visiting beaches and the Sydney Opera House.

a woman standing in a doorway of an office and shop
Christine Zhang’s Melbourne-based travel agency was gutted by the loss of tourism during the pandemic.(ABC News: Peter Drought)

Zhang’s business Odyssey Travel had even set up hotels specifically for Chinese tourists down Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. It only survived the pandemic by selling off assets, like tour buses and property.

Zhang is currently renting out half her office in Melbourne’s CBD to a takeaway shop to stay afloat.

“At least we’re not bankrupt like the others,” Zhang says.

Zhang is excited like many in the sector about more flights now being put on from Chinese airlines to come to Australia.

Since the nation announced its re-opening, several airlines have bumped up to a few dozen scheduled to land here a week at Sydney and Melbourne. But that’s a small fraction of the 150 that used to arrive here every week.

ABC News meet a flight that landed in Melbourne from Xiamen.

Many of the excited and emotional people landing in Australia were embraced by family at the airport gates after three years apart. Some said they were planning to travel to places like the Gold Coast for trips, but many were here mainly to see family.

Zhang was preparing for it to take about six months for people purely interested in tourism to start coming back to Australia.

However, as the nation re-opens, her sector has already been delivered a setback.

China has put out a list of nations that its people are approved to visit on guided group tours under its so-called China Approved Destination Status (ADS) scheme. Australia isn’t on that list.