MTF 2018: An Urgent Need to Manage Skyrocketing Chinese Travellers in Mekong Countries

China, Communities, Mekong, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia

Chinese travellers are definitively a plus for the Greater Mekong Sub-region as it represents now more than a quarter of all international arrivals in the GMS (minus Guangxi and Yunnan). While travellers contribute to bring revenues for countries, they are also negative aspects that could bring social troubles to the region, if governments do not try to mitigate Chinese inbound tourism impact on local life.

The last edition of the Mekong Tourism Forum in Nakhon Phanom took place underthe theme ‘Transforming Travel, transforming lives’. The theme was all about the contribution of tourism into people’s life and of course the opportunity to build bridges between locals and visitors through travel. However, the theme carried also the negative impact tourism can generate and ways to mitigate it.

Although the debates and the topics chosen at the MTF did not look at the issue of preparing or better said accommodating ever-increasing number of Chinese travellers, the issue was in the air. During the MTF 2018 Press Conference with Vice Minister of Tourism and Sports Itthiphol Kunplome, MTCO Executive Director Jens Thraenhart and ADB Steven Shipani. Asked by media about the effect of the soon-to-be-opened high speed train from Kunming to Laos and Thailand, authorities agreed that careful management should be implemented to avoid destroying what have been for so long the assets of the Mekong region: friendly peaceful-living people, a slow pace of life and a true sense of welcome towards foreign visitors.

But are governments still willing to implement a careful management of even larger numbers of Chinese travellers? It seems for them hard to find the right balance between a careful handling of Chinese tourists and the money they eventually generate in a country.

The boom of the Chinese travel industry with some 120 million of Chinese travellers is indeed radically changing tourism in the region. Mekong countries are at the doorsteps of China and they are also among the first destinations to be visited by their northern neighbour. In 2017, over 16 million of Chinese travellers visited Mekong countries with the bulk of tourists (85%) going to Thailand and Vietnam. Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia all receive over one million tourists per year from China.

With the multiplication air routes between the GMS and China ( in particularly from charter and low cost airlines), the opening of new checkpoints at borders and above all, investments from Chinese companies into tourism infrastructure in other Mekong countries, the point of irritation and eventually rejection could easily be reached.

Laos and Cambodia under increasing Chinese influence

Peaceful Laos already witnessed demonstration and expressions of resentment of locals against a step-up in Chinese presence. In Cambodia, the coast along the Gulf of Siam is turning into Chinese land. With already visible consequences. A place like Koh Kong is becoming similar to a Chinese territory within Cambodia with its towers, Chinese-style temples and restaurants. In Sihanoukville, all the new condominiums and towers being built are  bought by Chinese. Prices for real estate is skyrocketing with rentals already multiplied by 5 or 6. This starts to drag out locals and even local companies.

A sad example is the bus tour company Thero Express, which is running comfortable vans between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang and Sihanoukville, announced to pull out from the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville line. In a letter to their clients, Thero Express explains that “From July 1st, we cease to operate Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville line because the landowner ceases to rent to us [an office and parking space] at the end of June because he sold his place to a Chinese company.’

“We are in a very difficult situation since it is hard to find locations. The rent in Sihanoukville skyrockets between 5 and 6 folds due to Chinese presence. They buy everything and rent everything in Sihanoukville,” wrote the bus company.

Steven Shipani, ADB, Jens Thraenhart MTCO and Itthiphol Kunplome, Vie Minister Tourism

Thailand envisions rising package prices

In Thailand, tourism stakeholders expressed in the past their rejection of practices of Chinese tour operators with zero-dollar tours. This is gone but problems still subsist. “We have to monitor carefully how Chinese companies operate as well. It is true that they have been negative reactions in local population as many do not see the benefit of large Chinese groups. Many times money from Chinese tourists go only to Chinese owned companies such as shops, restaurants as well as guides. We need to monitor more and implement the law,” indicated Vice Minister Itthiphol Kunplome.

“We have many regulations but they are generally implemented by different agencies and then lack often efficiency. I believe we should work out a way to coordinate under one umbrella the legal checking of tourism activities,” he added.

Would it be possible to also regulate the number of people coming? With the crowding through Chinese groups, some tourism sites start to suffer physically while some other tourists refuse to visit as the pressure becomes unbearable. “We cannot ban people to come and that would not be fair. However, we can already talk about the problems with relevant authorities in each country, China or India for example and look together for solutions,” acknowledged the Vice Minister.

” Maybe, we should work on the price of packages as many are cheap, far to cheap. We should effectively talk to relevant tour companies and indicates that Thailand would only accept groups of tourists with packages of a certain amount agreed between the Thai Royal government and their counterparts in China and India. If the package is sold cheaper, then we could deny the entry,” told Itthiphol Kunplome.

Increased package tours’ prices would maybe help to tame the quality of Chinese travellers by discouraging indirectly certain categories of travellers…

Not all countries have so far problems with the rapid rise of Chinese travellers. Such as in Vietnam. Last year, the country received four million Chinese travellers, a jump of 48.5% over 2016.

“We still have space to accommodate more Chinese groups and I do not think that we have an issue over the number of Chinese travellers visiting our country,” explained Nguyen Thi Thanh Huong, Vice Chairman of Vietnam National Tourism Administration. As there is however defiance of Vietnamese towards Chinese due to a complicate history between both countries (China invaded many times Vietnam in past centuries), the government remains careful. And finally helps to preserve a certain balance…