Japan and Thailand are two of the most popular places to visit in Asia.
But both are losing ground among Chinese citizens as safety concerns rise among younger travelers.
Both countries were top choices for Chinese tourists earlier this year, but fell in the third quarter (Thailand to No. 6 and Japan to No. 8), according to marketing firm China Trading Desk, which measures consumer confidence. Chinese trips quarterly.
Japan: food safety
The release of treated radioactive wastewater from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean in August has significantly affected how Chinese feel about traveling there, said Subramania Bhatt, chief executive of China Trading Desk, the marketing agency behind the survey.
China Trading Desk’s survey of more than 10,000 Chinese citizens (94% of whom are under 40 years old) showed that eating good food (23%) was the top motivator for overseas travelers, surpassing local history and culture (22%), nature (22%) and shopping (10%).
The World Health Organization and other safety groups have said seafood from Japan is safe to eat, but fears among Chinese travelers have “turned one of their most popular destinations into one of their least popular,” Bhatt said.
Thailand: scam compounds
In a twist on the trend of “set-jetting” (in which movies and TV shows attract tourists to visit their filming locations), several blockbuster movies released this summer are deterring Chinese travelers from visiting Thailand.
The recent Chinese films “Lost in the Stars” and “No More Gambling” are fictional and neither are set in Thailand, but some say the plots closely reflect real-life events that have made headlines in recent years, including a Chinese woman who was pushed off a cliff in Thailand by her husband in 2019 (she broke 17 bones, but survived).
This is especially true in “No More Bets,” which follows a young couple lured to Southeast Asia to take on new jobs, only to become trapped in a complex of online scams, a situation the United Nations estimates is happening to hundreds of thousands of people in the region.
Many resorts are located in border areas outside Thailand (in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar), often in special economic zones where there is “little or no rule of law,” according to the United Nations. Victims come from across Southeast and South Asia, as well as mainland China, Taiwan and even as far away as Latin America, she said.
The problem has increased since the Covid-19 pandemic, said Pia Oberoi, senior adviser on migration and human rights in Asia-Pacific at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as the clientele of casinos decreased as a result of Covid. -Related border closures.
“Several compounds… have been repurposed by transnational criminal groups in places where people are forced to carry out scams against other people. So we say that there are two groups of victims here… the people who have been scammed in many cases out of a lot of money, but also others who are forced to participate in the perpetration of these scams in the centers of the Southeast Asia region,” he told “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday.
Beyond the scams, the areas are said to operate as “lawless playgrounds,” where drug, wildlife and human trafficking is rife.
“This is an incredibly lucrative business. Billions of dollars are being generated,” Oberoi said.
Dangers for tourists?
Rumors about dangers to travelers have spread on Chinese social media, but Oberoi said he has not seen any evidence of tourists “being snatched off the streets and dragged into these centers.”
“In fact, recruiting methods are much more sophisticated,” he said, and may include using recruiting platforms to give the impression that job seekers are targeting real jobs.
A man walks near a casino along the border between Myanmar and China, which are known to be hotspots for drugs, wildlife and human trafficking.
Ye Aung Jue | afp | fake images
He said governments are taking steps to intervene, but more needs to be done to end deep-seated problems in the region related to corruption and the application of the rule of law.
“We’ve seen a road map between ASEAN and the PRC around the police response, but what we really want to focus on is, of course, the people who have been trapped,” he told CNBC. “There have been some horrific levels of violence and abuse seen by people who are forced to commit these crimes.”
Tourism as a catalyst for change
In 2019, some 11 million Chinese travelers visited Thailand, making China the country’s largest source market for inbound visitors, according to Reuters.
As of September, fewer than 2.5 million Chinese citizens have visited Thailand, according to Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports, far fewer than the 5 million Thai authorities projected would arrive this year.
As to whether tourism – especially – could put economic pressure on Southeast Asian governments to do more, Oberoi said: “We hope that a human rights response will see a way forward; governments will understand that actually reputation of the country depends on a comprehensive response.
Cambodia has banned “No More Bets” from cinemas, which has not prevented it from grossing almost half a billion dollars in China in early September.
“Some ‘No More Bets’ viewers have even expressed fear that traveling to the region could endanger their lives,” said China Trading Desk’s Bhatt. “Over time, Southeast Asia has become increasingly associated with danger, and what was once a popular destination for outbound tourism has now taken on a negative connotation.”