China will resume group tours to 20 countries from February 6, but Australia is not on the destination list.
Zhang Cheng, owner of Great Wall Travel Services in Melbourne, believes it is retaliation for Australia imposing additional COVID testing requirements on visitors from China.
Ms. Zhang’s office is one of the operators authorized to organize guided group tours under the China Approved Destination Status (ADS) scheme.
“There haven’t been any ADS tours in the last three years and it’s not likely to return any time soon,” she said.
Independent Chinese tourists are not part of the plan and have been allowed to come to Australia since Beijing eased international travel restrictions on Jan. 8.
Health Secretary Mark Butler said at the time that requiring all travelers from China to present a negative COVID-19 test result was a temporary measure due to the lack of detailed information about the epidemiological situation in China.
A range of other countries also imposed testing requirements on Chinese visitors, including the United Kingdom, the United States and France.
None of them were on the approved list for group travel either.
Russia, Thailand and New Zealand are among the countries that can receive group tours organized by travel agencies and online travel companies, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced on Friday.
Ms Zhang said the COVID testing measures Australia imposed on visitors from China were “grossly discriminatory practices”.
“Why should only people from China [be tested] but not everyone from abroad?” she said.
“Chinese tourists understand which country is friendlier.
“To restore the tourism industry, Australia and China need to build mutual trust.”
The ABC has contacted the Chinese Embassy in Canberra to find out when ADS tours will resume in Australia, but have not received a response.
Paula Martin, senior executive of the NSW Tourism Industry Council, said China was Australia’s largest market for inbound tourism and their absence during the pandemic had hurt the industry.
In 2019 – before the pandemic – more than 1.4 million visitors came to Australia from China, spending an estimated $10.3 billion.
Ms Martin called for more support for tour operators and diversification of the international market.
“We need to be able to ensure that our tour operators, which are mostly small businesses, have the financial resources, they have the skills, they have the digital capabilities to be able to update their products to welcome visitors,” she said.
“India could potentially rival the size of a Chinese visit,” she added. “We have to look at Southeast Asia as a whole, which is actually bigger than China.”
No ‘immediate threat’
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the ABC there was optimism about the strong interest from Chinese visitors in traveling to Australia.
“We are confident that Australia’s reputation as a premier tourist destination will see Chinese visitors return now that China’s COVID border restrictions have eased, whether or not Australia is included in China’s trial resumption of outbound group travel under the Approved Destination Status scheme .”
Australia was one of the first Western countries to be granted Approved Destination status by the Chinese government in 1999 and remains an Approved Destination.
Mingming Cheng, a tourism industry expert at Curtin University, said the countries making hospitable gestures benefited from the surge in outbound Chinese tourists.
“It’s actually very important,” he said.
“Many tour operators have designed their products solely to cater to the Chinese market.
“If the Chinese tourists don’t come, they’re basically cutting their produce.”
Wang Cheng runs a travel agency in Sydney that mainly caters to tourists from China and the local Chinese community.
He said Australia’s exclusion from the ADS list would not pose an immediate threat to Australian tour operators.
“This policy will only affect ADS tourists. It will not affect the majority of local tour operators much as only a few of us have ADS qualification,” said Wang.
While group travel under the ADS program remains important for new travelers and families, more than 70 per cent of Chinese tourists to Australia come as independent travellers.
Nevertheless, Wang warned that the total number of Chinese tourists will decrease significantly this year.
“Tourism in Australia has been hit hard by the pandemic,” he said.
“It’s certainly not good news for the long term.”