Ctrip co-founder and Chairman James Liang took the stage at the recently concluded ITB China conference seemingly with one goal in mind: advise the Chinese government and Chinese tourism stakeholders on how to strengthen the inbound tourism industry.

The core problem that Liang wanted to address with his presentation is China’s enormous tourism trade imbalance. China, arguably the world’s most important source of tourists and tourism spending, is anything but an attractive tourist destination. At least that’s what China’s meager international tourist arrivals would imply.

To put things in perspective, Liang compared China’s 29.17 million international tourist arrivals in 2017 to 75.1 million arrivals in the United States, 28.69 million arrivals in Japan, 37.61 million in the United Kingdom, and 39.9 million in Turkey. The only example that was arguably worse off, at least considering population size, was India at 14.57 million arrivals. While 29.17 million arrivals is certainly a large figure, it’s quite small given China’s large geographic size and its enormous population of 1.4 billion people.

Trying to pinpoint reasons for the massive discrepancy between tourist arrivals in China and the United States, Liang addressed tourism-related areas where the two countries are notably different.

Among other reasons, Liang pointed out China’s substantially lower air quality ranking (177 vs. 10 in the United States), the number of visa exempt countries (14 vs. 38 in the US), the number of museums (4,873 vs. 35,144 in the US), the number of airports (218 vs. 5,136 in the US). Meanwhile, both Japan and the United States outnumber China for the number of golf courses by several orders of magnitude.

But it’s not all bad news for China’s inbound tourism industry. Liang also pointed out that China already has more ski resorts and heritage sites than the United States.

Photo: Daniel Meesak / Jing Travel

However, for Ctrip’s Chairman, in the end, much of it comes down to China’s arguably excessively restrictive visa policy. On one slide, Liang pointed out that China is ranked as only less restrictive than five other countries in the world: Nigeria, Gabon, Pakistan, Angola, and Saudi Arabia.

Liang admitted that this probably largely comes down to a sense of pride. Why should China offer liberal visa policy to nationals from countries that maintain a strict visa policy toward Chinese nationals? However, to Liang, Turkey provides a shining example of a country that swallowed its “visa pride” to the great benefit of its tourism industry. Offering visa-exempt arrangements for 78 countries, Turkey attracted 39.9 million visitors in 2017—over 10 million more travelers than the much larger (and more diverse) China did.

Ctrip co-founder and Chairman James Liang’s policy recommendations for the Chinese government. Photo: Daniel Meesak / Jing Travel

Also counting to Liang’s policy recommendations were “enhancing” airport construction, and further developing railway travel. This, of course, in addition to relaxing Chinese visa policy.

However, for Liang, it’s also about the lack of certain Chinese cultural assets. While China’s lagging behind in, for example, golf courses may have little actual influence on inbound tourism, Liang highlighted museums as a critical area where China needs to improve. China’s 4,873 museums are only a fraction of the United States’ 35,144—and an even larger cultural deficiency considering China’s much larger population.

More museums needed. Photo: Daniel Meesak / Jing Travel

Liang’s keynote was somewhat of an outlier at ITB China—an event that explicitly focuses on Chinese outbound tourism.

Hopefully, advice from the chairman of China’s arguably most influential tourism company doesn’t fall on deaf ears. China as a more welcoming tourism destination would certainly be good news for travelers around the world—not to mention for Ctrip’s global ambitions with its Trip.com brand.

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