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The number of flights from China landing at Vancouver International Airport dropped dramatically prior to this Chinese New Year.

Metro Vancouver travel companies reach for new markets as Chinese tourists stay away

Tourists from China are not coming back to Vancouver, so local travel agents are reaching for Asian travellers from the U.S. and Canada

By Yuqi Cao and Bowen Wang , in Business City , on February 15, 2022

B.C. travel companies that target Chinese visitors are turning to new markets in Canada and the U.S. because they believe tourists from China – one of B.C.’s largest groups of visitors – are not coming back any time soon as a result of Beijing’s strict travel restrictions. 

Travel companies are marketing small-group customized tours and themed vacation packages to lure North American travellers of Chinese ancestry, as the number of inbound Chinese tourists stays low. 

“Before the pandemic, 80 per cent of our customers were Chinese tourists during peak seasons. Now no booking from China — zero,” said Chunwei Miao, a sales executive at Super Vacation, a Richmond-based travel operator that caters to the Chinese market.

Super Vacation used to market travel packages with fixed routes and departure dates for inbound Chinese tourists. Customers would choose an itinerary that fits their schedules and join a large group of tourists in the tour, according to Miao.  

Now they are designing flexible itineraries based on customers’ age, interests, whether they have kids. Tourists can stay longer at attractions that they enjoy. 

Miao had left the industry for more than a year because of the COVID impacts, but he returned last August hoping to launch summer travel packages to save the company’s tour business. It did not work out because Chinese tourists are not traveling outside the country.

“A major reason Chinese tourists are staying put, is once they travel abroad, there’s no guarantee they can fly back to China as planned,” said Miao.Their return flights could be canceled and they will be stranded here.” 

That is due to China’s strict international flight restrictions as part of its effort to maintain a zero-COVID approach. Airlines whose flights arrive in China with over five COVID-19 positive cases will have the same inbound route suspended for two weeks. For 10 or more cases, a four-week suspension would be imposed, according to the latest policy released by the Civil Aviation Administration of China

In addition to the restrictions, Chinese authorities mandate a minimum 21-day quarantine for returning travellers and have paused issuing and renewing passports for non-urgent cross-border travel. 

The flight board at YVR airport shows very few flights between Canada and China. Photo: Bowen Wang

While the demand for international travel is high among Chinese, a survey shows more Chinese people deem outbound travel as unsafe because they see cases are rising and controls being loosened around the world, according to a recent China Traveler Sentiment Report from the marketing solutions firm DragonTrail. 

“Most Chinese tourists are still very cautious about the current COVID situation,” said Miao.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Super Vacation’s sales revenue slumped by at least 90 per cent. As the market went dark, over 95 per cent of the original 30 employees left the company. 

“It’s devastating to our business,” Miao sighed. “I’ve been working in tourism for almost a decade. This is the first time I’ve seen the industry turned upside down. We hope to target Asian tourists in the domestic market and from countries like the U.S.,” said Miao. 

Chunwei Miao and two other colleagues are the only ones working at Super Vacation’s office. Photo: Chunwei Miao

Other travel companies have also been extensively preparing for the pivot in their devastating forced respite due to pandemic lockdowns. 

“In the past two years, we developed our e-commerce platform and started our online business,” said Roy Chou, managing director at Vancouver-based travel agency Luxe Tours. 

“We don’t think we can just rely on a kind of inbound tourism business as a travel company,” said Chou. We have to restructure our business type.” 

Chou has pulled advertising money from China to target both domestic and emerging international markets. Not only have their company not backed off, according to Chou, they are actually trying to expand the business. 

China’s prolonged absence from B.C. tourism

China was the second-largest international market for B.C. in 2019, sending over 300,000 Chinese visitors to the province. During their stays in B.C, Chinese visitors spent roughly $586.9 million, ranking first among international travellers outside of the U.S.. 

According to a recent report by Destination B.C., about 82 per cent of Chinese tourists used a travel agent to help them book flights, accommodations, transportations or activities. 

In January 2020, before the travel restrictions between China and Canada were implemented, flights from China peaked prior to the Lunar New Year, with a total of 257 flights arriving at Vancouver International Airport. However, the number plummeted by 78 per cent to 57 flights prior to 2021’s Lunar New Year and continued to drop to only 17 flights arriving this year. 

Since the pandemic, Destination B.C. has received $5 million from the B.C. Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture, and Sport to resume B.C.-focused intra-provincial summer marketing campaigns, as well as international marketing in selected markets. China, however, is not among these markets.

“We are not actively marketing in China’s market.” Destination B.C. said via email. 

Considering Beijing’s restrictions, Destination B.C. has given priority to other markets, such as the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and Australia, whose consumer interests in travel to B.C. is high and whose travel restrictions have eased.

But Destination B.C. is not giving up the high-volume Chinese market.

“China has long been identified as a key market for B.C.,” said Destination B.C., “Resources are in place to begin marketing again once that travel can resume.” 

Miao and his co-worker have been receiving more phone calls and text messages from Asian tourists both domestic and international in the past two months, but the number is far from enough to make up for the missing Chinese tourists.

“We are holding on to the hope that we will see more tourists in the summer,” said Miao. “If only we could reach half of the revenue before the pandemic.”