Ease of China travel ban a welcome relief for East African tourism

China’s decision to simultaneously lower restrictions for Covid-19 and resume regular international travel is being seen as a possible silver lining in East Africa’s quest to revamp its tourism industry.

Traditionally reliant on the West and each other, East African countries were specifically hurt during the Covid-19 pandemic as travel restrictions slowed down visits. The pandemic also hurt the region’s desire to expand tourism markets beyond the traditional sources, and China had been one of the identified new market.

Beijing announced it will be permitting overseas group tours beginning February 6, selecting Kenya for a trial phase.

Such group tours will be the first in three years of closed borders under China’s strict “zero-Covid” policy, which ended in December.

Group tours

In the East African Community, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda already offer a single tourism visa, which would allow the Chinese visitors to tour these countries without additional immigration requirements.

Before the pandemic, some 155 million Chinese travel outside the country, signalling the importance of the Asian country as the biggest source market for tourists, accounting for nearly 10 percent of global tourists. The numbers have been paltry for the East African region, however, averaging 30,000.

According to the Tourism Sector Performance Report January-August 2022 by the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, the country received six percent of the total 924,812 to visitors from China for the period, representing only 55,488 visitors.

Open outbound travel

Beijing had suspended overseas group tours in January 2020 amid the spread of Covid-19. Last week, Chinese authorities said in a notice that a pilot programme will allow travel agencies to open outbound group travel for Chinese citizens to 20 nations, including Kenya, Egypt and South Africa.

Other countries include Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Switzerland, Hungary, New Zealand, Fiji, Cuba and Argentina.

Wang Wenbin, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said last week that many countries have “extended a warm welcome” to Chinese tourists, and many Chinese are looking forward to traveling overseas.

Chinese visitors

“In 2019, Kenya received approximately 84,000 Chinese visitors, a small proportion compared to the millions of outbound Chinese tourists which resulted to development of a strategy to woo more visitors.

“I was among tour operators who were to implement it but Covid struck,” said Jonathan Mwangecho, a Kenyan tour operator.

A 2021 report by the World Tourism Organisation showed Chinese tourists were the biggest spenders in the world, with each tourist spending more than $1,250 per trip, which was almost 35 per cent higher than European tourists.

No marketing efforts

Kenya says it has not benefited from the outbound Chinese tourism boom due to a lack of marketing efforts in the Asian nation despite the country being granted Approved Destination Status for outbound Chinese tourist groups in 2004.

In the region, China was Tanzania’s lead market for tourists before the pandemic.

The notice asks local authorities to understand the trial programmer’s importance in rejuvenating the country’s tourism industry and how they must take good care of tourists.

In January, Kenya Tourism Cabinet Secretary Peninah Malonza and Chinese counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Kenya Tang Jianjun launched a new Club of Sino-Africa Culture and Tourism to promote cross-cultural understanding, co-operation and people-to-people interactions.


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