2016/01/12

Belt and Road could boost visitor numbers

The Belt and Road Initiative will bring many opportunities for China's struggling inbound tourism sector, according to experts.

Over the past few years, outbound tourism has flourished but China has struggled to stimulate inbound tourism. As a result, the government has adopted several measures designed to boost the sector, including easing visa restrictions and offering tax refunds for overseas shoppers. For example, a 144-hour visa-free entry policy has been launched to allow foreign tourists who arrive in Shanghai and the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang to have greater convenience and flexibility during their trips.

However, tourism insiders agree that the policies have not boosted the number of inbound tourists as much as expected.

Dai Bin, head of the China Tourism Academy, said it's not possible for one policy to change the whole game: "It's like we have only made a breakthrough in one section, and we need more support from tourism-related industries."

Zhang Lingyun, dean of the College of Tourism at Beijing Union University, said the inbound tourism market could rank in the global top three in the next five or six years, but only if China can take full advantage of the opportunities brought about by the initiative.

"The most-obvious opportunity provided by the Belt and Road Initiative is the chance to integrate the fragmented source market for inbound tourism," Zhang said. "Generally speaking, inbound tourists to China come from Japan, South Korea, the United States and a few other places. If we combined several fragmented source countries, we could make a huge difference.

"For example, Germany, France and the United Kingdom account for no more than 7 percent of the inbound market, but the total market of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand is more than 10 percent. Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan could surpass 13 percent of the inbound tourism market," he added.

Zhong Linsheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said improvements to the infrastructure could boost visitor numbers.

"The Belt and Road Initiative involves more than 4.4 billion people, accounting for 43 percent of the global population. That's a huge tourism market," he said. "A large part of the ($40 million) Silk Road Fund has been poured into tourism and related industries, such as the major tourist hub being built in Xinjiang. Land and air transportation will also be greatly improved in the coming years."

However, China will still need better services and a "foreigner-friendly" environment to make it a more-attractive destination than its Asian competitors.

Jiang Yanxia, an assistant research fellow at the China Tourism Academy, said more cities should either support tax-refunds for foreign visitors or open more duty-free stores.