Philippines-China relations

Should the Philippines roll out the red carpet for Chinese tourists?

Lance Spencer Yu

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Should the Philippines roll out the red carpet for Chinese tourists?

ARRIVAL. Tourism Secretary Cristina Frasco and Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian welcome the arrival of some 200 Chinese nationals at the NAIA Terminal 1 on January 24, 2023.

Rappler

(2nd UPDATE) Other Southeast Asian countries have brought in millions of Chinese tourists after waiving visa requirements. But political tensions and a wary local populace might prevent the Philippines from taking the same step.

In late September 2023, Chinese tourists visiting Thailand received a VIP welcome of a lifetime, with Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin personally greeting the first batch of visitors to arrive in the country after it waived visas for Chinese nationals.

Bangkok’s airport was filled with a festive atmosphere as the Chinese visitors enjoyed traditional dance and puppet performances. Thailand quite literally pulled strings in a bid to bring back tourists from what was once Thailand’s top market.

Is it time for the Philippines to do the same?

Even as tourism recovers, the Philippines remains millions of visitors behind pre-pandemic levels. Throughout 2023, the country welcomed just 66% of the number of international visitors that it had in 2019.

That’s partly because the arrival of Chinese tourists in the Philippines has not bounced back as expected. China has consistently been among the Philippines’ top 3 tourist markets. In 2019, Chinese nationals made up more than 20% of total international visitors. China even seemed poised to overtake South Korea as the country’s top source of visitor arrivals – until the pandemic grounded travel to a halt.

Chinese outbound travel to the Philippines has never recovered since. In the first quarter of 2024, Chinese visitors didn’t even make up 7% of international arrivals. Simply put, the Philippines is lagging behind its Southeast Asian neighbors, who have gone out of their way to attract travel-hungry Chinese mainland tourists by easing visa restrictions.

Although no Southeast Asian country has fully restored its tourism sector to pre-pandemic levels, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia are doing comparatively better than the Philippines. All five countries have already reached at least 70% of their 2019 arrival numbers, and the current year is shaping up to be a strong one for them as well.

China’s ‘just pack and go’ travel era

In particular, Southeast Asia’s top three tourist destinations – Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore – have found success by waiving visa requirements for Chinese nationals.

As earlier mentioned, Thailand first launched its visa-free travel period for Chinese tourists in the last quarter of 2023. In 2024, Thailand and China announced that both countries would permanently waive visa requirements for each other’s citizens starting March.

Malaysia has also recently lifted visa requirements for visiting Chinese travelers until 2025, while Singapore allows Chinese to enter the country visa-free for up to 30 days.

This loosening of restrictions has led to an explosion of tourists from China in what has been dubbed the “just pack your bag and go” era.

“That has created what we call ‘just pack your bag and go’ era of China outbound. This is now publicly displayed in China social media. I can go to Thailand this Friday night if I want to because it’s so convenient. I don’t need to do anything. I don’t need to prepare for it. So let me just go there and spend,” Schubert Lou, chief operating officer of the Trip.com, said.

“More and more countries are getting into that [visa-free] phase,” Lou said during Trip.com Group’s Airline Global Conference on May 29. “And that has triggered a tremendous growth.”

Data from the Trip.com Group, which is the largest online travel agency in China, shows that China outbound flight booking orders have risen by 20% in May 2024 compared to May 2019. Meanwhile, flight booking orders throughout Southeast Asia jumped by 60% in the same periods.

Official numbers back this up too. Travel has picked up dramatically in Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore when comparing the first quarter of 2023 to the same period in 2024. Chinese now also make up a bigger part of all international travelers entering the three countries, especially in Thailand, where they make up nearly 20% of all visitors in Q1 2024.

“Thailand – not only in Asia, but globally – has done a fabulous job to attract customers for inbound,” Trip.com Group chief executive officer Jane Sun said. “When the government or the prime minister went to the airport to welcome customers from China over there, people are very touched. So they want to visit Thailand.”

Sun also said that visa-free policies draw in Chinese outbound tourists particularly because “Chinese customers are very last-minute.”

“A lot of times, they’re very busy, and when the holiday comes, they are like, ‘Oh where should I go?’ The countries which offer free visas benefit because then they can just pick up the passport and go,” Sun told reporters on the sidelines of Trip.com Group’s Envision 2024 conference on May 30.

Where is the Philippines in this?

The Philippines, meanwhile, has been missing out on China’s “just pack and go” travel explosion. Whereas Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore have appealed to the burgeoning Chinese outbound tourists market, visitors from China still only make up less than 7% of total arrivals in the Philippines. At its peak in 2019, China was the Philippines second biggest tourist market, making up more than 21% of visitor arrivals.

Currently, Chinese arrivals in the Philippines lingered at just 20% to 30% of its pre-pandemic levels, according to a report by the Bank of America.

Make no mistake, the Philippines has been trying to woo back the hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists that it’s still missing. In early 2023, the DOT joined President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on a state visit to China. During that trip, the DOT and its counterpart in China, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, signed a deal that promotes “bilateral tourism cooperation” between the two countries. (READ: How Chinese visitors could boost Philippine tourism in pandemic’s wake)

At around the same time, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian visited Boracay, a popular destination for Chinese tourists before the pandemic.

Weeks later in January 2023, Huang and Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco welcomed Chinese tourists arriving in the Philippines in time for the Lunar New Year. Leis, gifts, and a Filipino bamboo orchestra livened up the welcome ceremony.

WELCOME. Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco and Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian greet Chinese tourists arriving in the Philippines. Photo from Department of Tourism.

However, unlike other Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines has stopped short of offering visa-free entry to Chinese nationals. The closest it has come to this is launching its e-visa program for Chinese tourists. In July 2023, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced that it would begin piloting e-visas for Chinese visitors to the Philippines, allowing foreigners to apply for a temporary visa remotely.

“Certainly, the e-visa will be a game changer in the Chinese market, which currently prefers other Southeast Asian destinations such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Cambodia which provide landing visa to Chinese travelers thus gaining faster momentum for the tourism recovery of these countries from the negative impacts of the pandemic,” Frasco said in July 2023.

But mere months later, in late November 2023, the DFA indefinitely suspended its e-visa system for China. The DFA claims the system has been stopped to give way to “improving future operations, including for its payment processing systems.”

Meanwhile, hospitality companies in the Philippines have been anticipating the return of Chinese tourists in the Philippines. For instance, Megaworld Hotels and Resorts (MHR) recently signed a deal with the Trip.com Group to become its “preferred partner hotel,” providing its hotels greater visibility on China’s most popular online travel agency. MHR is also set to open the Grand Westside Hotel soon, and attracting Chinese tourists is one strategy they’re using to fill up the 1,500 rooms of the Philippines’ biggest hotel.

“We are working on a pre-opening campaign for the property. Even before the property opens, we already start to feature [it]. In fact, that’s why we also have our marketing head here [in Shanghai] because we want to really understand how to properly feature this pre-opening hotel to international guests around the world,” Trip.com Group managing director Boon Sian Chai said after the partnership deal with MHR was sealed.

Tensions are getting in the way

The pressure to bring back Chinese tourists to the Philippines comes just as tensions between the Philippines and China have also heightened significantly.

In recent months, the Chinese Coast Guard has repeatedly harassed Filipino fisherfolk, blasted Philippine resupply boats with water cannons, intercepted airdropped food packages, and attempted to block the evacuation of sick Philippine personnel in the West Philippine Sea.

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In response, President Marcos has adopted a tougher stance against China, starkly contrasting with former president Rodrigo Duterte, who allegedly entered into a “gentleman’s agreement” with China over the disputed West Philippine Sea.

At the same time, the Philippines has been intensifying its crackdown on illegal Philippine offshore gaming operators, uncovering a sprawling compound with suspected Chinese military uniforms.

Unsurprisingly, a March 2024 survey by OCTA Research showed that 91% of adult Filipinos “distrust” China. Another survey done by Blackbox Research found Filipinos were the least supportive among Southeast Asians of a visa-free entry policy for Chinese tourists. Half of Filipinos believed it was a “bad idea,” while only 33% said it was a “good idea.” By contrast, 71% of Singaporeans supported a visa-free policy for Chinese.

Strained political relationships and a distrustful local populace may complicate negotiations between the Philippines and China for visa-free policies. So far, there has been no indication of lifting visa requirements for Chinese tourists.

The question remains: with tensions so high, should the Philippines retain its screening procedures for Chinese visitors? Or could freer travel between the two countries boost an ailing tourism industry and soften political tensions? – with reports from Reuters/Rappler.com

Disclosure: The author was part of a media delegation to the Envision 2023 Global Partners Conference hosted by Trip.com Group

2 comments

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  1. PD

    There is a growing number of Chinese sex tourists going to Mindoro, Angeles City, Cebu Red Manila etc. Especially in the Chinese enclaves in the Angeles City area Chinese facilitators cater Pinay to Chinese men. Minors included. Walking Street turns more and more Asian.

  2. ET

    “No, it is better to retain the visa requirement. We already have many Chinese spies coming in through POGOs or IGLs, and we should not facilitate the entry of additional spies by waiving the visa requirement. This time, national security should take greater priority over the growth of our tourism industry.”

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Lance Spencer Yu

Lance Spencer Yu is a multimedia reporter who covers the transportation, tourism, infrastructure, finance, agriculture, and corporate sectors, as well as macroeconomic issues.