Features Asia Tourism

Regional disputes disrupt, reshape East Asian tourism flows

09, Oct. 2019

Diners eat at Taipei's Ningxia Night Market on Sept. 22, 2019. For many foreign tourists, night markets are a must-go place during their visit to Taiwan. , 20191008_0010_2.jpg|A street scene on Hong Kong Island, September 29, 2019.
Diners eat at Taipei's Ningxia Night Market on Sept. 22, 2019. For many foreign tourists, night markets are a must-go place during their visit to Taiwan. , 20191008_0010_2.jpg|A street scene on Hong Kong Island, September 29, 2019.

By Gloria Cho

TAIPEI, NNA – Political spats among major East Asian countries in recent months are reshaping tourism patterns as travelers change destinations to avoid hotspots or express grievances against other governments.

Protest-torn Hong Kong is the chief example, as tourism overall fell nearly 40 percent in August. Mainland Chinese travelers are avoiding Beijing’s political rival Taiwan while South Koreans have cut back trips to Japan over a trade dispute between those two countries. Some places, such as Taiwan, are finding new sources of arrivals to offset losses.

Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong has seen a massive drain in arrivals since protests began in June over a now withdrawn extradition bill that could have forced criminal suspects to stand trial in mainland China where laws are tougher.

Protesters are now venting against Chinese rule over their territory, and some have grown violent. A teenage protester who was shot at close distance on Oct. 1, China’s National Day, brought the violence to a head.

Passenger volume at the normally busy Hong Kong International Airport slumped to 6 million in August, down 12.4 percent from the previous year, official airport data show.

It further indicated that arrivals to Hong Kong from the mainland, Southeast Asia and Taiwan have all declined. The Hong Kong Tourism Board’s data showed arrivals from the mainland fell by 42.3 percent year-on-year in August, while overall visitor arrivals reached about 3.6 million, a 39.1 percent decrease.

The tourism board intends to restore Hong Kong’s position as regional travel hub when the time is right. Visitors would normally go to see the former British colony’s East-West fusion, look over the downtown from Victoria Peak and spend a day at Disneyland.

“We will launch a large-scale promotion in collaboration with the trade to rebuild Hong Kong’s tourism image later, at an appropriate time,” a board spokeswoman told NNA on Oct. 3.

South Koreans avoid Japan

In July, a spat ignited by Japanese trade restrictions against South Korea intensified as South Korea was removed from Japan’s list of preferred trading partners. Japan has decided to tighten the rules on exports of three key materials that South Korean companies need to make semiconductors and flat panel displays. Japan cited issues related to South Korean export controls and regulations.

In response, South Koreans have launched campaigns to boycott Japanese-made goods and trips to the nearby country, according to local reports.

The number of South Koreans visiting Japan fell 4.3 percent year-on-year in July and 48 percent in August to the lowest number of arrivals since June 2016, Japan National Tourism Organization data show.

South Korean visitor arrivals could decrease by 15 percent this year overall compared to 2018, said Hideo Shioya, director of the tourism research department at the research institute Japan Travel Bureau Foundation, told NNA in an email interview.

But a “deteriorated” South Korean economy, devaluation in the Korean currency and difficulties faced by some South Korean airliners including eliminated routes “deserve more attention” as causes for the drop in arrivals, Shioya said.

South Koreans are likely to visit Vietnam and Thailand after spiking Japan trips, as the two Southeast Asian countries are already popular among South Koreans, Shioya said.

Visitors to Taiwan from South Korea also increased from 69,000 in June to 94,000 in August, data from Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau showed.

Japanese still visit South Korea – for now

Japanese visitors to South Korea have continued growing over the past months. According to the governmental Korea Tourism Organization, arrivals from Japan rose 19.2 percent and 4.2 percent in July and August, respectively, compared with the same figures of 2018.

Shioya attributed that trend to a sharp 8.4 percent devaluation of the South Korean won against the Japanese yen from April onward as well as the “charisma” of South Korean pop stars. “But the trend might not continue fearing the hostility in South Korea toward Japan,” he warned.

Pressured by China, Taiwan taps other tourism sources

Taiwan has faced declining tourist arrivals from China since 2016 due to a reemergence of political disputes that year. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, but most citizens have said in surveys they oppose unification.

Chinese tourism that took off in 2008 crested at 4.2 million in 2015. Arrivals have slumped since Taiwan’s pro-independence ruling Democratic Progressive Party took power in 2016.

On August 1, the Chinese government suspended a program that let residents of 47 Chinese cities take individual trips to Taiwan. China’s government body Association for Tourism Exchange across the Taiwan Straits cited “the current cross-Straits ties” as a reason, according to a notice posted July 31 on Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism website.

The ban turned out to cap the influx in Chinese tourists to Taiwan by 12 percent in August from the previous month, according to Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau figures.

Tension with China has prompted Taiwan to diversify sources of inbound tourism. The government, guided by its 3-year-old New Southbound Policy, is specifically seeking travelers from Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. To get them, Taiwan has waived visas and subsidized some inbound commercial flights.

Total arrivals from 18 countries under the policy increased from 1.8 million in 2016 to 2.5 million in 2018, according to Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau. The 18 include the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc plus parts of South Asia and Oceania. These arrivals constitute 21 percent of overall inbound tourism, following China’s 29 percent.

The growth of inbound visitors’ annual total spending in Taiwan had declined since 2015 as the tourism industry had faced a slump in Chinese travelers, with Tsai Ing-wen administration having taken a yielding stance toward Beijing.

Although their total expenditure growth accelerated in 2018 thanks partly to the effects of the southbound policy, the industry has a murky outlook for this year due to a decrease in big spenders from China.