Chinese New Year celebration parade in Brussels, featuring people dressed up in panda suits and hoodies. Photo: Firdouss Ross Rosli / Shutterstock

2018 marks the China-EU Tourism Year, a European Union-funded project aimed at promoting travel and cultural exchange between EU member states and China. The designated tourism year is very much the European Commission’s response to the growing number of Chinese travelers who visit Europe and constitute an increasingly important source of revenue across EU member states.

Just how important? Anecdotally, Chinese travelers are by far the most important group of travelers in Europe, and there’s a whole industry that aims to support businesses in catering to this group of travelers. In reality, Europe has a long way to go to catch up with the competition and is arguably the continent that performs the worst relative to its geographic position, cultural assets, and connections to China.

Let’s start with the basics: how many Chinese travelers visit Europe each year? According to one (state-funded) Chinese source, some 5.5 million Chinese travelers were projected to visit Europe in 2017. According to documents put forward by the China-EU Tourism Year, 12 million Chinese tourists visited Europe back in 2015. Did Chinese tourist numbers in Europe drop from 12 million in 2015 to 5.5 million in 2017? According to the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, tourists actually grew by 65 percent year-over-year in the first half of 2017. The numbers simply don’t add up.

The numbers simply don’t add up

Given the extreme fluctuations pointed out above as well as the, reportedly, vital importance of Chinese tourist spending, one would imagine that a humble luxury retailer in Paris goes from boom year to bankruptcy in the span of a couple of years—or that Europe-bound flights sometimes depart China without passengers, and at other times are horribly overbooked.

The news on the ground is that, well, businesses that cater to Chinese travelers aren’t facing a business environment akin to a cryptocurrency rollercoaster ride— things are pretty stable. European airlines are also reasonably good at predicting Chinese demand and respond to it—that is, as far as the China’s aerospace authorities grant them takeoff and landing slots at Chinese airports.

The real story is, of course, that no one seems to know how many Chinese tourists visit Europe each year. That’s a problem. If the European Union decided to spend tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of tax-payer Euros under the impression that it is the recipient of 12 million Chinese tourists as early as in 2015, that’s an even bigger problem.

No one seems to know how many Chinese tourists visit Europe each year

Even the humble European retailer or tour operator may have a better grasp on where the Chinese tourism market is going than big stakeholders such as the European Union and the Chinese government. A cynic may argue that the latter has good reasons to overstate the importance of its tourists, yet it’s the former which appears to overstate arrivals by the highest order of magnitude.

Or understate? How many Chinese travelers actually visit Europe each year?

Ironically, we can go to the European Union for what by all accounts are quite reliable figures on Chinese arrivals in Europe. The European Commission, which collects and publishes data on visa applications at all Schengen member’s visa application centers (e.g., embassies, consulates, purpose-built visa application centers), more or less has the full story. According to its most recent statistics, 2,110,103 Schengen visas were issued to Chinese nationals in 2016—visas that cover all EU territory with the exceptions of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania—but also including non-EU members Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.

The European Union has good data on Chinese tourist arrivals, but promotes numbers off by a factor of four

Unfortunately, things aren’t as easy as putting 2,110,103 as the exact number of Chinese visitors to Europe, but it takes us far closer to the truth than any “estimate” or “projection” made by stakeholders that really should know a whole lot better. In reality, some of these visas remain unused, and others are used for repeat visits to Europe. Most likely, the actual number of “arrivals” to European Union countries is somewhat higher than 2.1 million on account of multiple entry visas, but we’re still only talking about 2.1 million Chinese individuals.

To put things in perspective, the United States issued 1,991,647 non-immigration visas to Chinese nationals in 2016, a destination substantially smaller in terms of population. This number of visas issued generated 2.97 million Chinese visits throughout the year. Assuming that the same relationship between visas issued and visits recorded holds for the European Union, Schengen Area countries generated around 3.1 million Chinese visits in 2016. Adding UK arrivals to the mix, we end up at around 3.3 million arrivals—and that’s assuming that European countries attract as many repeat visitors as the United States, which has a much larger Chinese diaspora and Chinese student population.

The United States is doing better than Europe, and its arrival numbers aren’t misleading

The source of the wildly different arrival numbers presented for Europe rests on counting practices. In most European countries, a Chinese tourist who crosses the border from another European country (and stays for at least one night) is counted as an arrival. The very same tourist is also counted as an arrival at the country where they entered Schengen, as well as in all other European countries where they spend a night or more throughout their visit. For travelers in tour groups who are bused between European countries, this often means that each traveler is counted as arrivals a handful of times if not more. Consequentially, a tour group of, for example, 20 Chinese travelers, may end up recorded as 100 or more “arrivals” to the continent.

The result is highly confusing numbers that even the European Union doesn’t get right. Or perhaps, in this case, uses to its advantage to create a narrative that is detached from reality but furthers political goals. It doesn’t mean these figures are necessarily wrong, but they’re certainly misleading.

If the United States counted tourists the same way, it would claim over 10 million Chinese arrivals

If the United States counted tourists in the same way, i.e., not at their first immigration checkpoint but once every time they cross state lines, then the United States would look even further ahead of Europe than it already is in terms of Chinese arrival numbers.

There’s always been a lot of talk about China’s government publishing inaccurate numbers and data to further its political goals. The European Union, at taxpayers’ expense, doing the very same thing to inflate China’s tourism influence over Europe—and consequentially misleading European businesses—isn’t a whole lot better. And while European businesses may never have trusted GDP numbers or other statistics published by China, this isn’t the kind of skepticism stakeholders are used to employing when dealing with the European Union.

Besides, if the China-EU Year of Tourism is measured against the 12 million Chinese arrivals that supposedly happened in 2015, it’ll look like a spectacular failure. Nobody wants that, so it’s time to get real about Chinese influence over European tourism. 3.3 million visitors from a tourism market that barely existed 10 years ago leaves more than enough business opportunities for Europe.