Industry insiders predict China’s Philippines travel suspension will last for months
Chinese travelers go bananas for tropical islands, but Beijing has suspended all group tours to the Philippines amid an ongoing sovereignty wrangle over an island in the South China Sea.
Disappointed Chinese tourists, who had planned to visit the archipelago, are turning to Bali, Phuket and Jeju in the wake of the diplomatic spat over Scarborough Shoal, or Huangyan Island (黄岩岛).
The three islands in Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea respectively, have seen “a noticeable increase of visitors from China recently,” reported Shanghai Daily.
According to Beijing Youth Daily (in simplified Chinese only), destinations such as Phuket, Bali, Jeju and the Maldives are facing an “explosive” demand in the Chinese capital right now.
Shanghai China International Travel Service reported a 20-plus percent increase in tourists bound for Bali and Phuket compared with the same period last year. Customers who visited Bali, Phuket and Cheju have increased 10 percent at Shanghai China CYTS Outbound Travel Service.
The increase could be a combined result of the Philippines group tour suspension and the upcoming summer vacation — one of the very few occasions in a year for most Chinese to travel, said Peng Liang (彭亮), PR manager of Ctrip.com.
“Chinese people love islands — nearly half of our outbound trips are for resort islands,” added Peng. “This is because China doesn’t have many good beaches. The only resort island we have is Hainan.”
Boracay, Cebu and Bohol are the most popular Philippine destinations among Chinese travelers.
“Our first choice was Boracay, but now we have decided on Phuket as our destination because we can also enjoy white sandy beaches and diving there,” Shanghai resident Chen Jianqing told Shanghai Daily.
No end in sight
Various Chinese tour companies, including Ctrip, predicted the travel suspension will last till after the summer vacation based on the current political situation.
Even if the suspension is lifted, it could take the market at least six months to re-embrace Philippine routes, said Chinese industry experts.
“Individual Chinese travelers can still go [to the Philippines] if they arrange their own flights and accommodation,” said Peng.
“However, [self-guided tours to Philippines from China] are getting difficult at this stage because many airlines have cut down or halted flights between China and main tourist destinations in the Philippines.”
Charter flights are the main transportation for Chinese travelers to reach the Philippines, according to Peng.
China Southern, one of country’s biggest airlines, has cut flights to the Philippines in May and June due to the cancellation of “a large number of tourist groups.”
Tour agencies have seized the opportunity to push alternative island routes.
Ctrip, one of China’s biggest online travel agencies, is promoting more than 20 popular island destinations, from Koh Samui to Hawaii, from basic group tours to luxury “dream” tours.
“From Chinese travelers’ perspective, there are many routes to replace [the Philippines],” noted Peng.
Most Chinese still travel on group tours. A typical five-day package to Southeast Asia costs about RMB 4,000 (US$710).
The view down south
Mainland China is now the fourth-largest source of tourists for the Philippines. In the first quarter of 2012, 96,455 mainland Chinese tourists visited the Southeast Asian nation, accounting for 8.4 percent of the total visitor volume.
In an interview with Asiaone, Henry Chusuey, chairman of Boracay Foundation (a group of business operators in Boracay), said individual Chinese travelers have continued to come, but the cancellation by Chinese tour groups accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the expected tourist arrivals on the island.
“We just have to work harder to attract tourists from other countries,” said Chusuey, who is of Chinese descent. He also pointed out that it is “important to show tourists from China that they are still welcome here despite the suspension of tour packages from their country.”
Philippine Department of Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. said the Chinese tour group pullout “was far from disastrous” from a business standpoint.
“The Philippines has at least 10 primary markets, China is only one of them and not even in the top three,” Jimenez told e-Travel Blackboard.
According to Aileen Clemente, president of Philippine Travel Agencies Association (PTAA), though Chinese tourist arrivals to the country have grown by double digits, the country’s top three inbound markets remain South Korea, the United States and Japan.
Scarborough back story
Chinese authorities are yet to announce when group tours to the Philippines will be resumed.
A tense standoff between China and the Philippines has been underway since April 10, when the Philippine Navy accused Chinese boats of fishing illegally off Scarborough Shoal.
Beijing and Manila both claim Scarborough Shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island (黄岩岛). It is some 200 kilometers west of the Philippine island of Luzon.
Analysts believe the area is rich in mineral resources, natural gas and oil.