In the wake of the pandemic’s impact on global tourism, Southeast Asian nations Cambodia and Myanmar have embarked on initiatives to woo back Chinese travelers, a key demographic for their tourism industry. However, despite their strong diplomatic ties to China, these countries face uphill battles due to reputations tainted by crime and safety concerns.
Striving for Chinese Traveler Engagement
On August 4, Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism unveiled “China Ready,” a comprehensive program targeting seven facets of the tourism industry. This initiative aims to enhance Chinese-language services across categories such as hotels, restaurants, travel guidance, resorts, and souvenir shops. The overarching objective is to ensure that frontline service personnel can converse in Mandarin and offer standardized services to Chinese visitors.
Collaborative Efforts: China-Cambodia Partnership
This program is part of a larger collaborative endeavor between China and Cambodia. The two nations initiated efforts to increase Chinese tourism earlier this year, including plans for enhanced air travel connections, accepting payments in Chinese renminbi within the tourism sector, and commemorating the 65th anniversary of Cambodia-China diplomatic relations.
Pre-Pandemic Dominance and Post-Pandemic Challenges
Before the pandemic, Chinese tourists constituted over 35% of the more than 6.6 million foreign visitors to Cambodia in 2019. The tourism sector, employing around 600,000 individuals, generated a significant $4.92 billion, contributing approximately 12% to Cambodia’s GDP. However, the pandemic caused a drastic decline, with only 1.31 million foreign tourists in 2020, plummeting by 80%. Despite a recovery to 2.27 million tourists in 2021, the appeal to Chinese visitors remains notably diminished.
Myanmar’s Struggle for Chinese Visitors
Myanmar, facing a similar dilemma, reopened its borders to international airlines in April 2022. To reignite tourism, Myanmar sought cooperation with Jilin, a populous province in Northeast China. A memorandum of understanding was signed to collaboratively promote tourism destinations. China’s easing of travel restrictions in December 2021, coupled with the resumption of outbound group trips, facilitated a resurgence in overseas travel demand.
Challenges in Chinese Public Perception
While various countries strive to attract Chinese tourists, Cambodia and Myanmar encounter skepticism and resistance within the Chinese public. Their proactive policies are met with negativity, with online platforms featuring numerous critical comments. The Jilin-Myanmar partnership, for instance, has elicited concerns and opposition. Some users express reluctance to visit Myanmar due to its negative reputation.
Human Trafficking Concerns Undermining Appeal
A prevalent issue affecting both Cambodia and Myanmar is their reputation as hubs for human trafficking. Reports of criminal networks operating job scams and exploiting young people from China have marred these countries’ images. Despite efforts to combat trafficking, perceptions persist that law enforcement involvement contributes to the problem. This tarnished image has driven skepticism among potential Chinese tourists, exacerbated by the influence of media, such as the film “No More Bets,” that highlight scams and fraud.
The Road Ahead: Overcoming Challenges
For Cambodia and Myanmar to effectively attract Chinese tourists, addressing concerns related to human trafficking and crime is paramount. Strengthening law enforcement, fostering international cooperation, and implementing comprehensive awareness campaigns are essential to rebuilding confidence. Establishing a safe and secure environment will be the linchpin in reshaping perceptions and reviving these nations’ appeal in the eyes of the Chinese traveler.