Fri, Aug 16, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Pollution linked to decline in tourist numbers to China

The number of tourists traveling to China has dropped dramatically. The industry relies heavily on visitors from the US, but pollution, and in particular the poor quality of Beijing’s air, may be keeping many tourists away

By Louise Watt  /  AP, BEIJING

Illustration: Mountain People

China, one of the most visited countries in the world, has seen sharply fewer tourists this year — with worsening air pollution partly to blame. Numbers of foreign visitors have declined following January’s “Airpocalypse,” when already eye-searing levels of smog soared to new highs.

Tourists have been put off by news about smog and other problems, said Frano Ilic of travel agency Studiosus in Munich, Germany. He said the number of people booking trips to China through his company has fallen by 16 percent this year.

“You are reading about smog. You are reading about political things,” Ilic said. “All the news which is coming from China concerning the non-touristic things are bad, frankly speaking.”

China is the world’s No. 3 destination for international travel with only France and the US ahead of it. Weakness in visitor numbers could hurt government efforts to reduce reliance on trade-driven manufacturing by promoting cleaner service industries such as tourism. Foreign visitors are outnumbered by Chinese tourists, but spend more.

The decline could be long-term if Beijing fails to make visible progress in combating pollution, experts say.

That China’s air and water are badly polluted following three decades of breakneck growth is not news. However, January’s record-setting bout of smog got worldwide news coverage and was so bad that some longtime foreign residents left the country.

From January to June, the total number of foreign visitors, including business travelers and residents, entering China declined by 5 percent to just under 13 million compared with the same period last year, according to the China National Tourism Administration. Overall, visitors from Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas all declined.

In Beijing, with major attractions including the Great Wall and the Imperial Palace, the drop is even more striking. The number of foreign tourists visiting the Chinese capital fell by 15 percent in the first six months of the year to 1.9 million, according to the Beijing Tourism Administration.

The China National Tourism Administration acknowledges a decline in foreign tourists to China as a whole, and in cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen. It blames the global economic slowdown and a stronger Chinese currency and says China’s tourism image has been hurt by the emergence of H7N9 bird flu, air pollution and dead pigs found floating in Shanghai’s main river.

The city of Awara in central Japan canceled a student exchange trip due to the bad air. Eighteen Japanese students were due to visit the eastern coastal city of Shaoxing under an annual exchange program that goes back 30 years.

Such trips might resume next year if conditions improve, said an employee of Awara’s city hall, Toshihiro Nukami.

Beijing’s official air quality reports show some improvement over recent years. However Steven Andrews, an environmental and legal consultant, said other, more important data show a decline.

An analysis of US embassy readings of smaller, more harmful airborne particles, show this year’s pollution is significantly worse than in the past three years, Andrews said.

Beijing’s city government only started publicly releasing air quality data in January last year that measured PM2.5, or fine particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. They can enter deep into the lungs and can cause more damage. They are considered a more accurate reflection of air quality than other pollutants.

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