Travel is risky. Leaving home, boarding a gigantic tube laden with combustible fuel, flying over an ocean, and exploring a foreign destination all has its risks. But the odds of anything bad happening are statistically very, very low, and shouldn’t prevent anyone from venturing out into the world. For the Chinese traveler, however, security abroad is a real concern and one taken seriously when planning a trip. Destinations aiming to attract increasing numbers of Chinese visitors need to understand this and nurture their expectations for security.
This was a key takeaway from a report by travel market analysis company ForwardKeys at the World Travel Market London global conference earlier this month. In addition to direct flights, convenient visa processes, and awareness of the Chinese holiday calendar, ForwardKeys added, “A reputation for being a safe place to visit,” as one of “Four important factors that destinations need to consider if they are to secure a larger share of the Chinese outbound tourism pie.”
Safety is among the top factors influencing Chinese tourism decisions
Chinese travelers, whether wealthy or not, prioritize safety in the travel decision-making process. The facts speak for themselves: 61 percent of respondents agreed with this assessment in a 2018 Hotels.com Chinese International Travel Monitor survey, while high-net-worth Chinese traveler’s listed traffic safety (42 percent), natural disasters (25 percent) and robbery and theft (22 percent) as travel concerns in Hurun Report’s recent Chinese Luxury Traveler 2018 Report.
Also, dips in Chinese visitor numbers are common following high-profile accidents. For example, the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris had a devastating impact on Chinese tourist numbers: in the first half of 2016, the French Embassy in Beijing issued 15 percent fewer visas than the previous year.
Chinese travelers have a track record of staying away from destinations where their compatriots have been specifically victimized. Paris’ reputation has been hurt in recent years by reports that pickpockets have targeted Chinese tourists, believing them to typically carry larger amounts of cash than other visitors. “Many Chinese that I’ve spoken with talk about Paris as being ‘unsafe,’” said Sienna Parulis-Cook, communications manager at travel-marketing agency Dragon Trail Interactive. “These robberies have gotten media coverage in China, and it’s only rational to be worried about visiting a city where you know that your nationality is the prime target for criminals.” Incidents like these, she believes, could have a greater impact than the threat of terrorism.
Parulis-Cook added that Chinese people don’t typically perceive the United States as being an unsafe destination, specifically for Chinese visitors, though recent Dragon Trail interviewees had consistently expressed fears over gun violence and concerns that President Trump’s tweets and actions have made the U.S. less welcoming to foreigners.
Additionally, Destination Analysts’ 2018 study, “The State of the International Traveler,” found 44.4 percent of Chinese respondents listing, “Concerns about my personal safety,” as a reason for not visiting the United States more regularly. While Chinese visitors ranked the cost of visiting the U.S. and an unfavorable exchange rate as more significant deterrents than safety, respondents from China were clearly more concerned about safety in the U.S. than visitors of other nationalities. Travelers from South Korea (29.7 percent) and Japan (28.4 percent) were the next most likely to stay away because of security fears.
However, more experienced and independent travelers are less likely turned off by safety concerns. “FITs (free independent travelers) are in general much less impacted by political or safety-related events that can crush the group travel market,” said Parulis-Cook. “And they’re also more confident travelers.”
What “Safe” Really Means to Chinese Travelers
Some observers say governments and tourism organizations seeking to attract Chinese visitors should broaden their definition of “safety,” which for some Chinese visitors — especially less experienced travelers — can mean feeling welcomed and traveling without fear of being harassed or running into embarrassing situations. Chris Ledsham, from China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), thinks that the current U.S.-China trade war, along with President Trump’s frequently belligerent rhetoric towards China, is deflating Chinese enthusiasm for visiting the United States.
“The U.S. has never been regarded as a ‘safe’ destination,” he said. “The key question is whether they feel welcome at the moment. The Chinese fear being poorly treated based upon being Chinese.” Ledsham adds, “If you are in California, visiting your uncle from China, that’s one thing, but to travel around other parts of the States and feel that you might be targeted — even if not physically, but more rhetorically — this is something that people really feel there.”
David Becker, CEO of Attract China, an American tourism company that promotes U.S. businesses to Chinese tourists, said, “Safety is the number one consideration for Chinese traveling abroad, even if it is perceived safety rather than real.” And whatever the actual risks, perceptions can be decisive.
“You have the government openly suggesting things like espionage,” Ledsham said, referring to an October 2018 Financial Times article, reporting that U.S. officials had urged President Trump to restrict student visas for Chinese nationals. “That sends a very negative message. People who are applying for visas to the U.S. don’t want to spend time and money going through hoops to get a U.S. visa only to find out that it gets canceled. At moments like that, people might choose Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or a European destination instead of the U.S.”
What Travel Marketers Need to Know
To begin with, destinations targeting Chinese travelers would benefit from prioritizing safety as part of their brand-building efforts, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it’s even possible to bounce back from dips in Chinese visitor numbers prompted by safety fears.
ForwardKeys’ research highlighted Turkey as a successful case study in rebuilding Chinese confidence. The country’s reputation suffered serious damage as a result of the June 2016 Ataturk Airport attack, which left 48 dead. However, ForwardKeys pointed to a 69 percent year-on-year spike in Chinese visits to Turkey in the first eight months of 2018, helped by campaigns and events around 2018’s China-Turkey Tourism Year. The positive takeaway: even memories of even high-profile events tend to fade.
Following a terrorist attack in 2016, Chinese tourism to Turkey has rebounded this year
COTRI’s Ledsham noted Malaysia’s recovery as a destination four years after Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared with 239 passengers on board, the majority of whom were Chinese nationals.
Attract China’s Becker thinks cities could openly address security fears by talking up their achievements in combating crime. He notes New York City’s reduction in crime over the past few decades as one prominent example. Even largely symbolic campaigns can have an impact, such as the joint patrols undertaken between Chinese police and local law enforcement in European cities like Paris, Venice, and Dubrovnik. “It may seem like a public relations stunt,” Becker said, “But it has been widely reported in China.”
Ledsham adds, “We’ve worked with various destinations within the States, and while America will always have this perception of being a more dangerous country, if you are the tourism bureau of a particular state, you can say, for example, ‘We are Wyoming. This is a peaceful, polite part of the States where you can be in contact with nature.’
“Show people that this isn’t gangs, drugs, and police violence. Even if an incident could still happen, you can say ‘this is different.’ No one is going to use their marketing to say, ‘We don’t have guns,’” he said. “Because the minute you do, people start thinking about guns. But if you can build an image of something positive and new and become known for that, then people will focus less on any other factors.”