China and Australia’s economies are closely intertwined; China is both Australia’s primary import partner and export partner. However, Australia’s relationship with China forces it into a challenging balancing act. Nowhere is this more evident than in Australia’s tourism industry.

Chinese tourism to Australia is more influential than the numbers belie. In 2016, Australia received an approximate total of 8.3 million international arrivals; 1.2 million of those were Chinese arrivals. The number of Chinese visitors puts it only second to New Zealand.

by 2026, Chinese arrivals to Australia will reach 3.3 million

The Australia China Business Council estimates that by 2026, Chinese arrivals will reach 3.3 million. The council also predicted that by 2020 the revenue derived from Chinese tourism would rise 50 percent to reach AUD$13 billion (US$10.1 billion).

However, Former Victorian premier and current president of the Australia China Business Council, John Brumby, believes that Australia is not ready for this tourist boom. He thinks there is currently not enough signage in Chinese, or payment options, such as Alipay and WeChat Pay, to facilitate Chinese tourism.

Moreover, the business council believes that there currently aren’t enough premium hotels geared toward Chinese travelers like Rosewood, Mandarin Oriental, and Peninsula in Australia.

Despite the potential for increasing revenue, there are substantial risks, and in the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that increased Chinese tourism bears with it significant financial risk and even ethical concerns. Australia is in many ways at the forefront of this discussion.

Like many other Western countries, particularly the United States and Canada, Chinese educational tourism is also is also a vital source of revenue for Australia. About 30 percent of total international students in Australia are from China.

Chinese tourism is proving to be a double-edged sword in Australia. Much like in response to South Korea’s deployment of the THAAD defense system, tourism has been a tool that the Chinese government is utilizing to influence Australian institutions. This is forcing the Australian government and Australian universities to reevaluate how they should engage with Chinese tourists on all fronts.

In the past year, Chinese students have lodged complaints about what they see as “insulting China” or factually incorrect. The incidents have revolved around the One-China Policy and Taiwan, but also Chinese border disputes and criticism of China’s government corruption.

The issue is less about the potential offense taken by Chinese students about course material and more about how influential Chinese students, and their spending, has upon individual institutions. Perhaps most disturbing is that Chinese diplomatic offices have stepped in to encourage Australian universities to tow Beijing’s official line.

All of this has raised concerns about the potential restriction of free speech on Australian campuses when it comes to discussions about China. Brumby contends that there is no influence from Beijing on Australian college campus citing his experience as a university lecturer.

Despite Brumby’s comments, it’s clear that the Chinese government actively attempts to force Western institutions of higher learning to participate in its efforts to control the range of opinions and information Chinese both at home and abroad can come into contact with.

The most jarring incident involved Britain’s storied Cambridge University. The Cambridge-published China Quarterly, one of the leading academic journals on China, admitted this year that it blocked access in China to some 300 “politically sensitive” of its articles. The censorship included some of the biggest names in China studies, like James Millward, and David Shambaugh.

After a massive backlash, Cambridge University Press reversed its decision to censor these works; news of their reversal was, ironically, censored in China.

Similar events have happened in the United States as well. Because of a speech by the dissident leader the Dalai Lama at UC San Diego, the Chinese government cut off all state funding for Chinese students intending to study at the university.

The message is clear, if a university in the West allows speech that contradicts Beijing’s understanding of politics or history then it risks hurting its bottom line.

These events bear similarities to the tactic that Beijing is utilizing to harm South Korea in the wake of the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. This has devastated local tourist economies in South Korea, particularly Jeju Island. Of course, not all of this is merely the direct influence of the Chinese government, social pressure and popular nationalism are arguably just as important.

CHinese tourism to Australia presents substantial financial and ethical concerns for Australia

Australia’s increased involvement with Chinese tourism should be a concern for the Australian government, and it presents substantial financial and ethical concerns for Australia. No dispute at the geopolitical level of THAAD has occurred between Australia and China. Nonetheless, in the event such a row happens, the Australian government may run the risk of cutting off sources of tourist revenue.


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