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Biden administration eyes return of Chinese tourism


Raimondo is the spokesperson for the Biden administration’s efforts, which included an August 29 meeting with Chinese Culture and Tourism Minister Hu Heping, where they agreed to hold the 14th Leadership Summit. US-Chinese tourism in China in the first half of next year. the first such gathering since 2019 in Seattle. The two sides are currently discussing the terms of the summit, although neither Raimondo nor Heping have yet committed to attending.

But Liu Pengyu, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, hailed the development as a positive step for bilateral relations, which hit a low point earlier this year after the discovery of a Chinese spy balloon crossing the American airspace.

“Tourism has always been an important part of people-to-people exchanges between China and the United States. She has played an irreplaceable and unique role in strengthening communication between the two peoples and building public support for bilateral relations,” Liu said in an email.

Chinese ‘visitors’ – a broad term that encompasses both tourists and long-term students – were at the forefront of a boom in international travel to the United States in the decade before the pandemic. of coronavirus. They spent a record $34 billion in the United States in 2018 and another $33 billion the following year.

That figure dropped sharply when both governments clamped down on travel during the pandemic. Chinese spending in the United States has fallen to around $11.4 billion in 2021, almost entirely funded by Chinese students at American colleges and universities. It rebounded slightly to about $14 billion last year, with education still accounting for the bulk of spending.

“Before the pandemic, the Chinese traveler was absolutely crucial to the travel economy in the United States,” said Geoff Freeman, CEO of the US Travel Association. They were “by far our biggest spender travelers,” as well as being one of the largest groups of foreigners to visit the United States, he said.

Americans, meanwhile, spent about $5 billion a year to visit China, before the pandemic, but only $462 million last year.

To see a return to those kinds of numbers, Liu said the two sides will need to address several “challenges,” including the small number of direct flights between China and the United States, the high price of those flights, and the cumbersome nature of the flight. US visa application process. .

Liu also urged the State Department to “adjust” its current advisory against US citizens traveling to China – due to the risk of wrongful detention and other factors – “as soon as possible”.

One major hurdle that Liu didn’t mention: the state of China’s economy, which has seen its growth slow dramatically since 2020. Chinese consumers — scarred by long and grueling lockdowns at the height of the coronavirus pandemic — have accumulated even more of their income in savings to prepare for any new difficult times ahead, potentially leaving less for luxuries like international travel.

At a virtual press conference on Tuesday, Yang Fan, a counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, pushed back against perceptions of weak Chinese consumer spending with a series of statistics aimed at showing the sharp rise in domestic demand. Yet many analysts say China’s post-pandemic “revenge spending” has been far less than expected.

Chinese tourism is particularly important for California, which received more than half of the 2.8 million Chinese travelers who came to the United States each year before the pandemic.

“There were many family restaurants and hotels in towns like Rosemead in my district that depended on contracts with Chinese tour groups,” the rep said. Judy Chu (D-California). “When those contracts were cancelled, first because of the pandemic and then because of the drop in Chinese tourist numbers, it really hurt the local economy.”

Chu applauded Raimondo’s recent trip, which is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to stabilize relations with China amid growing mistrust on both sides. But the eight-term congresswoman said she was still “very concerned” about rising tensions with Beijing, which could discourage Chinese people from traveling to the United States.

“We need to have a more nuanced approach to our relationship with China. We can protect American workers and businesses from unfair trade practices, uphold human rights and safeguard national security without severing ties with the Chinese people,” she said. “And I think having those ties can only help us spread our message of democratic values ​​and economic openness. »

However, the pandemic has not only disrupted the flow of Chinese tourists visiting California and other US hotspots. This has had a “devastating” impact on all travel to and within the United States after ten years of solid growth, the Commerce Department said in a recent report.

Domestic travel by Americans fell nearly 32 percent, while international visits to the United States plunged nearly 76 percent. And “the loss of 4.4 million jobs in the travel and tourism sector accounts for almost half of the total employment decline in the United States,” the Commerce report said.

Beijing finally ended its strict zero Covid policy at the end of 2022, paving the way for normal travel to resume. However, an increase in the number of cases has prompted the US government to temporarily reimpose the requirement that travelers from China present a negative Covid test or proof of recovery before boarding a flight to the United States. United. This was lifted in March.

China took another important step in August by ending restrictions on groups visiting the United States and other destinations, a move that Raimondo attributed to months of “very hard” work between the Commerce Department and the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

It was “incredibly welcome news,” said Adam Burke, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board. Before the pandemic, Los Angeles welcomed about 1.2 million Chinese visitors each year, most arriving as part of group tours, he said.

“They are having a significant impact on businesses in the greater Los Angeles area. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that we won’t see a full economic recovery in Los Angeles without a full resumption of Chinese visits,” Burke said.

LA Tourism has had offices in China for 17 years and has kept them open during the pandemic. The National Tourism Board led a delegation of travel professionals to Beijing and Shanghai in late August to help revive the market. “Even amid national challenges, all signs point to a rapid and full recovery of Chinese tourism entering California, especially now that the borders are fully reopened,” said Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, in an e-mail. -mail.

Yet obstacles remain. Before the pandemic, the United States and China allowed more than 100 weekly passenger flights each side between the two countries. In August, there were only 12 weekly flights on each side, although US and Chinese officials recently agreed to increase that number to 24 on each side by the end of October.

In addition, Russia prohibits American carriers from flying over its airspace, but does not impose the same restriction on Chinese airlines. This gives Chinese carriers a huge competitive advantage, as they can offer flights up to four or five hours shorter than their US counterparts.

But in a sign that both sides are working hard to boost tourism trade, Chinese carriers have agreed not to fly over Russia so they can be on equal footing with American carriers, Burke said. With flights resuming and group tours allowed, Los Angeles hopes to welcome between 400,000 and 500,000 Chinese visitors this year, he said.

Another major impediment to increased Chinese travel to the United States are visa delays, which the State Department attributes to staffing shortages.

“Right now, wait times are up to 160 days,” said Freeman of the US Travel Association. “This is extremely concerning as we know we are dropping travelers in other markets by 500-600-800 days in Colombia, India and other markets. If this is the path we follow in China, we are headed for a world of suffering. »

About 8.9 million Chinese also hold 10-year visas to visit the United States, most of which are up for renewal by the end of next year. The U.S. travel industry, fearing an influx of new applications that could make delays worse, wants the State Department to extend a soon-to-expire waiver that allows those 10-year visas to be renewed without an in-person interview.

Long-term visas are particularly important for Chinese students enrolled in US colleges and universities, which form the basis of Chinese spending in the United States.

Despite heightened friction between Washington and Beijing in recent years, China remains the top source of foreign students in the United States. However, Chinese enrollment on US campuses fell 22% in the 2021-22 academic year, from the record high of 372,532 students set in 2019-20.

The pandemic caused some of that decline, costing U.S. higher education centers an estimated $15 billion in lost revenue. But the attitude of the United States towards Beijing has also hardened in recent years. Unlike the sharp drop in China, enrollment from India, South Korea and most other countries on US campuses actually increased last year.

The loss of so many Chinese students is of great concern to California colleges and universities. “They saw a very healthy enrollment from the students. But now it has to be rebuilt,” Chu said.

Phelim Kine contributed to this report.