Sydney Australia – CBT Holidays, a Sydney-based tour company, hopes the reopening of China’s borders will revive Australia’s tourism sector after a “survival” year.
The travel company lost access to its biggest market in 2020 when Australia and China closed their borders in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. For most of 2021, CBT Holidays, which focuses on China tour packages, ceased operations entirely due to a lack of customers.
Despite Australia reopening to visitors in February 2022 and efforts by many tour operators to target domestic tourism, business remained at a crawl for much of the sector last year.
As Australians remained locked out of China, Chinese arrivals to Australia fell more than 95 per cent from 1.43 million visitors in 2019.
“Initially we had some compensations from [the] The Australian government and the New South Wales government until maybe a year and a half ago,” Eric Wong, product manager at CBT Holidays, told AL Jazeera.
“And [then] we just close the business.”
Now, as China reopens its borders from Sunday, potentially millions of Chinese, including tourists, students and business travelers, are expected to travel overseas to destinations such as Australia for the first time in three years.
“[It’s] good news, the Chinese border is open,” Jimmy L, the owner of CBT Holidays, told Al Jazeera, asking to be referred to by his first name and an initial of his last name.
“More or less, the business will come … and then we can win again.”
However, he is cautious about how long it will take for business to recover, not least because of the lack of flights in and out of China and the high cost of fares.
“For example, before, the return ticket to China was around A$1,000 ($688). And now [it’s] 8,000, 9,000 [Australian dollars] ($5,500, $6,200)… for the economy,” he said.
Sun, managing director of China Travel Service, another China-focused operator in Sydney, agreed.
There are currently only “a few flights” coming into Australia from China, carrying only a few hundred passengers, Sun told Al Jazeera, asking not to be identified by his last name.
While Chinese airlines are ramping up flights to and from Australia, Australia’s national carrier, Qantas, has yet to announce the resumption of routes to China.
“I think this will change a lot… when the airlines increase the flight schedule… I think people exchanges between these two countries will be more and more frequent and then gradually return to normal,” Sun said.
So far, there has been little action by the Australian government to encourage travel between China and Australia, despite Chinese visitors accounting for A$12.3 billion ($8.5 billion), or a third of all tourism spending before the pandemic.
On New Year’s Day, Australia announced that travelers from China, including Hong Kong and Macau, will have to provide a negative COVID-19 test result before travel, amid concerns that rising cases in China could result in variants of new and more dangerous for Australia.
The Australian government announced the measures – which followed similar moves by countries including India, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – despite advice from the country’s chief medical officer that new travel restrictions were unnecessary.
Beijing has condemned the measures, saying any policy to control COVID-19 must be “proportionate” and “based on science”, without affecting “normal travel and people-to-people exchange and cooperation”.
Sun said he is not too concerned about the tests preventing or deterring some Chinese from making the trip to Australia.
“I think that’s good… That’s very, very reasonable,” he said. “Even now, for Australian people or Australian-Chinese to visit China, they still need a 48-hour test for COVID. It’s the same thing.”
“I also think we need time – politics can change,” he added.
But Sun said much remains to be done to encourage Chinese to return to Australia en masse.
“We still need it [to] reconnect with those hotels, those attractions, then get the new equipment, the new contracts, and then, based on that, we create a new product for the Chinese customers coming in,” he said.
“We also need to reconnect with the Chinese travel company[ies] to create tour package product for Australian people [travelling to China] so it should take a few months for us to prepare for that.”
At the same time, Sun said he has learned from experience that it is vital for his business to continue expanding beyond China to secure its future.
“We can’t put all our eggs in one basket,” he said, adding that CTS has already begun to expand.
Meanwhile, companies like CTS are eagerly awaiting the return of Chinese visitors.
Sun said that while he expected China to eventually open its borders, he did not expect it to be so soon.
That’s why when everyone knows this news, especially in this industry, they are very excited,” he said. “We are very excited. [It’s] Good news.”