“In past years, nationalism in China has had a dramatic impact on the decision-making process of Chinese tourists, particularly regarding potential destinations. This has been highlighted by the recent THAAD dispute between South Korea and China that is still currently affecting the profitability of South Korea’s tourism industry, which is heavily dependent on Chinese tourist spending. Virtually no Chinese tourists traveled to Jeju Island during Golden Week this year. This is not simply because of the “travel ban,” but because it’s embarrassing.

Travel to Jeju Island is “embarassing”

The relationship between nationalism and tourism is often mischaracterized. Government mandates from Beijing can certainly reduce tourism to destinations, this includes travel bans and other restrictions. Arguably, social pressure has a bigger impact on where Chinese tourists choose not to travel to. Potential tourists can face scrutiny at work and within social circles for traveling to “unpatriotic” destinations.

Since 1979 with the start of Reform and Opening, China has embarked on a path of market reform, often dubbed “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” From a political standpoint, this has presented the Chinese government with a fundamental, philosophical challenge. How does a “communist” government legitimize its rule while undertaking capitalist reforms?

Many China experts, like Dr. Peter Gries at the University of Oklahoma, have pointed to nationalism as the primary ethos that the Chinese government has used to justify its regime. While the Chinese Communist Party may not be furthering the revolution or the cause of communism, it is making China stronger and righting historical wrongs forced upon China by foreign imperialist powers.

When diplomatic disputes have resulted in massive drops in Chinese travel, it is often perceived as a top-down phenomenon with the Chinese government attempting to influence Chinese tourist behavior through policy or rhetoric to retaliate. The latest development has been the government’s “travel ban,” when the Chinese government banned the sale of packaged tours to South Korea.

However, a new paper titled Political Travel Constraint: The Role of Chinese Popular Nationalism by researchers, Dr. Ming Ming Cheng of University of Technology Sydney, Dr. IpKin Anthony Wong at the City University of Macau, and Dr. Bruce Prideaux at Charles Darwin University, highlights the role of social pressure in how Chinese tourists respond to diplomatic disputes between China and other countries.

To produce their findings, the researchers conducted interviews of Shanghai residents who had canceled or delayed trips to Japan due to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute between Japan and China that flared up again in 2012.

One consistent response during interviews was that respondents were most concerned with the perceptions of people in their social and professional lives. Particularly that a trip to Japan during the period of heightened tensions between Japan and China could lead to people believing that they did not support their homeland. One interviewee stated, “I am afraid if I go there [Japan], then someone will take a picture of me and state that I don’t like my country.”

“I’m afraid if I go there, then someone will take a picture of me and state that I don’t like my country”

Another respondent noted that pressure at work against travel was quite strong, with their bosses explicitly telling them not to travel to Japan during the height of the dispute. One interviewee recounted a directive he received at his workplace. “My company sent out an email to every staff saying, please do not associate yourself with this political incident.” One interviewee’s company even cited potential danger when canceling its company trip to Japan.

However, the long-term impact was less pronounced. After some time, many of the interviewees traveled to Japan and the incident only had a short-term impact of Chinese travel to Japan.

The incident only had a short-term impact on Travel to Japan

These findings complicate the view of Chinese nationalism and its relationship with tourism. The social implications of travel there during a sensitive illustrate how nationalism can have a dramatic impact on where Chinese tourists choose to go. Even if a potential tourist is ambivalent about the issue at hand, not particularly nationalistic, or if travel restrictions or a travel ban is not very restrictive, the consequences for leisure travel could drastically affect their social and professional standing.

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