In the past decade, tourism has become a key part of China’s diplomatic toolbox for enforcing compliance with foreign policy directives or retaliating against unfavorable moves by foreign governments. In lieu of diplomatic and financial sanctions through bilateral channels or international and regional organizations, the Chinese government has often threatened to close off the faucet of Chinese tourists and by extension, tourist dollars, either through the formal strengthening of travel restrictions or through public efforts to dissuade travelers of going to those destinations. Such efforts have often been labelled as a “tourist ban.”
The effectiveness of this tactic in influencing foreign state behavior is unclear. While the THAAD row did cause China to lose face and back down, it nonetheless allowed Beijing to force some potentially significant concessions upon South Korea and caused substantial economic damage to South Korea. Often, the move has drawn ridicule from locals, celebrating the reduction of incoming Chinese tourists. A series of fake tourism ads circulated on Taiwanese social media last year celebrating the decrease in Chinese tourists.
Even with mixed results, there’s no indication that this type of retaliatory tourist diplomacy will stop for the simple reason that it costs Beijing little and has the potential to severely damage the economies of countries that have drawn Beijing’s ire. The biggest question here is: who will Beijing use a tourist ban against next?
Tourist bans cost Beijing little and can severely damage the economies of countries that oppose its economic and political efforts
Taiwan is the most obvious answer. Taiwan and China’s political conflict is well over 70 years old, and the political status of Taiwan strikes at the heart of the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. During heightened tensions between Taiwan and China in the past, China has had little recourse but to vocally protest and engage in military exercises. Such actions are certainly threatening but do little damage to Taiwan or its income in the short-term. In 2016, China initiated a “tourist ban” against Taiwan. Although it produced no real substantial economic effects on Taiwan’s economy, China’s partial success against South Korea may lead to yet another ban. Of course, Taiwan is not nearly as dependent on Chinese tourism compared to South Korea.
Despite both being nominally communist states, China and Vietnam have been regional rivals since the Cold War. The two countries even fought a short war in 1979 over Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia. The current dispute over conflicting claims in the South China Sea heated up again in September. 2014 saw anti-Chinese riots and protests regarding the issue and the Vietnamese government has made efforts to cozy up to the United States and a whopping 84 percent of Vietnamese view the United States positively.
However, Vietnam’s rapidly growing economy is heavily dependent on Chinese tourism. In the first 10 months of 2017, Vietnam saw 3.2 million Chinese arrivals—surpassing the admittedly impressive South Korean arrival figure of 1.9 million. Tourism is a key source of economic growth for Vietnam, which is still a solidly lower middle-income country. A Chinese tourist ban would hit Vietnam hard.
Chinese tourism to India isn’t big, but it’s growing. India has even been able to attract Chinese medical tourists. China was the ninth largest tourist source market for India in 2016 with 250,000 arrivals. However, China is fundamentally India’s best potential future tourism source market.
India’s best bet for increasing arrivals and driving up tourist revenue is its next-door neighbor China
The Indian tourist industry still lags behind other smaller, nearby Asian countries like Vietnam, with 10 million visitors in 2016, or Thailand, with 32.5 million arrivals in 2016. Last year, India only welcomed a total of 8.8 million international arrivals. With growth from other source markets in the West steady but modest, India’s best bet for increasing arrivals and driving up tourist revenue is its next-door neighbor China.
Nonetheless, India and China have long-standing territorial disputes, particularly over remote regions in the Himalayas and Kashmir. Much like Vietnam, Indian and China fought a short but bloody war in 1962. These ongoing territorial disputes almost led to an armed conflict this year, but the conflict has been resolved for the time being. India’s growing economy desperately needs more tourists. After improvements in its transportation infrastructure and availability of quality accommodation, India’s best bet is China, but growth in Chinese tourism poses risks. In the likely event of another border dispute, China may seek to cut off Chinese tourism to India through a tourist ban if it could potentially damage India’s tourism industry.