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China snubs Canada on its list of approved travel spots, setting back tourism’s post-COVID recovery

In an apparent snub, the Chinese government has left Canada off a list of countries approved as international travel destinations for tour groups — a decision that threatens to leave Canada’s travel industry at a competitive disadvantage as it continues its post-pandemic recovery.

In a media statement, the Chinese foreign ministry announced on August 10 that an additional 78 countries had been added to a list of destinations approved for group tours and package travel. Travel agents from mainland China work from this list when they promote and book foreign travel for Chinese nationals.

In response to an inquiry from CBC News about China’s rationale for excluding Canada, the public affairs office at China’s embassy in Ottawa wrote that “lately, the Canadian side has repeatedly hyped up the so-called ‘Chinese interference’ and rampant and discriminatory anti-Asian acts and words are rising significantly in Canada.”

“The Chinese government attaches great importance to protecting the safety and legitimate rights of overseas Chinese citizens and wishes they can travel in a safe and friendly environment,” the embassy added.

Global Affairs Canada has yet to respond to CBC News’ request for comment.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, outbound tourism from China was a valuable international commodity. Statistics from the World Tourism Organization suggest Chinese travellers spent $255 billion in 2019, accounting for 20 per cent of all international tourism spending.

Before international travel largely shut down due to the pandemic, roughly 60 per cent of mainland Chinese tourists’ spending abroad went to group tours.

Chinese citizens have yet to resume their pre-COVID travel patterns. It remains to be seen if Thursday’s announcement will be perceived as a green light for more Chinese nationals to pack their suitcases again.

Destination Canada, the Crown corporation set up to promote tourism, told CBC News that in 2019, China was Canada’s largest source of tourist arrivals from the Asia-Pacific region and Canada’s second-largest long-haul market after the U.K. China also used to be Canada’s largest market in terms of how much its tourists spend.

“While visitation and [spending] from China have dropped significantly since 2020, China remains an important market for Canada. We look forward to welcoming Chinese visitors back when restrictions allow,” said spokesperson Jennifer Peters in a statement.

Canada approved as a destination in 2010

The list from which Canada is now noticeably absent is one it had to fight to join in the first place.

In 2005, then-Liberal industry minister David Emerson thought he had secured Beijing’s “approved destination status” (ADS) for Canada. But then the federal government changed hands and Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowed not to sacrifice human rights for the “almighty dollar.”

Amid diplomatic tensions, approvals for Chinese tour groups took years to finalize. The ADS list is a way for Beijing to influence the travel and spending power of its millions of citizens overseas, and scholars have analyzed how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used it to advance its political agenda.

Emerson, who crossed the floor to serve in Harper’s cabinet as trade minister, continued to push China and even threatened to take Canada’s case to the World Trade Organization, arguing Canada had been put at an economic disadvantage for purely political reasons.

Harper finally secured ADS during a visit to Beijing late in 2009.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen look out over Shanghai, China on Saturday, December 5, 2009.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen look out over Shanghai, China on Saturday, December 5, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Approved group tours began in 2010, leading to a significant expansion of air travel between the two countries and a boost for tourist destinations popular with Chinese visitors.

At the time, Beijing’s inclusion of Canada on its list was estimated to be worth a potential $100 million annually for the travel sector, owing to a predicted influx of 50,000 tourists each year on these approved visits.

Chinese tourists, on average, stayed in Canada longer — and therefore had the opportunity to spend more — than visitors from other countries. Government officials at every level rushed to market Canada as eager for their business.

Then came the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver’s airport in 2018, the arrest of two Canadian citizens in retaliation, and the resulting deep freeze in Canada’s bilateral relations with China.

The COVID-19 pandemic then turned off the taps almost completely, as Beijing stopped approving international group travel for its citizens.

Tourists as diplomatic weapons?

Thursday’s reinstatement of endorsed group travel to dozens of international destinations sent a signal that Beijing now approves of its citizens spending money abroad again. Even the U.S., which continues to have a strained diplomatic relationship with China, was included on last week’s list, as were other Western allies like Germany and the United Kingdom.

China’s first batch of sanctioned travel approvals in January included 20 countries such as Thailand, Russia, Cuba and Argentina. The second batch approved for post-pandemic visits in March included 40 countries, notably Nepal, France, Portugal and Brazil.

In total, 138 countries have now received this green light from Beijing — but not Canada.

Niagara Falls used to be one of the top attractions for Chinese tour groups. The president and CEO of Niagara Falls Tourism told CBC News she holds out hope that Chinese officials may yet add more countries.

“While the omission of Canada from this round of post-pandemic approved destinations is disappointing, Niagara Falls Tourism is optimistic that in the next phase of this staggered approach, that Canada again will be able to share the wonder of Niagara Falls with the Chinese group and tours market,” Janice Thomson’s office wrote.

Three people stand in front of a temple in Thailand.
A Chinese tourist in traditional Thai dress poses for a photograph at Wat Arun in Bangkok, Thailand on Jan. 12, 2023. (Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press)

International media coverage of Beijing’s announcement last week noted Canada’s absence and its strained relations with China.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly declared a Chinese diplomat from its consulate in Toronto persona non grata earlier this year amid allegations of foreign interference and suspected election meddling.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government remains under pressure from opposition parties to take tough diplomatic stands against Beijing in response to allegations of foreign interference, harassment of members of the Chinese diaspora residing in Canada, the CCP’s targeting of minority groups like Uyghurs and a number of documented human rights abuses, including the exploitation of forced labour by Chinese authorities.

In the past, when it has sought to send a political message and put pressure on Ottawa, Beijing has not hesitated to use the economic power of its millions of consumers to harm Canadian business interests.

The CCP’s so-called “commodity diplomacy” has targeted Canadian agricultural exports like canola and beef, risking billions in lost exports as these sectors scrambled to find alternative markets.

Small tourism businesses have been arguing the federal government needs to give them more time to pay back the special loans extended to keep them afloat during the pandemic. They argue their economic recovery is not yet complete, despite an encouraging summer season in some places.

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