Shao Qiwei: The Economic Magic of Tourism

Jan 28 , 2021

Shao Qiwei, Chairman of the former China National Tourism Administration (CNTA).


The sudden outbreak and spread of the coronavirus worldwide starting in early 2020 has caused a sharp drop in international tourism. Today, the global tourism industry remains in a cold winter.

In the fourth quarter of last year, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) predicted a 70 percent decline in international tourism for 2020 and foresaw a rebound mostly in the third quarter of 2021, or even in 2022. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, up to 75 million jobs are at immediate risk in global tourism because of the pandemic, and the tourism GDP loss to the world economy could reach up to $2.1 trillion in 2020. In addition, the Asia-Pacific is expected to see up to 49 million jobs at risk throughout the region, representing a loss of nearly $800 billion in tourism GDP. According to the U.S. Travel Association, the United States has suffered a $519 billion decline in direct travel spending, with approximately 8 million jobs lost.

In China (excluding Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan), domestic tourism revenue could fall by more than 60 percent in 2020, according to the China Tourism Academy. Statistics from research institutes reveal that the income of at least 70 percent of Chinese companies and employees in the tourism sector is less than 20 percent of what it was in 2020. Throughout 2020, more than 5,000 travel agencies were closed; today, many small and medium-sized firms face difficulties in business operation and transformation and struggle with business stagnation and the risk of bankruptcy. Moreover, many workers face the risk of unemployment and hidden unemployment, or they struggle to find new jobs. A new wave of infections in the winter of 2020-21 will cause greater losses to the global tourism industry and related sectors, and when the industry will rebound remains unknown.

China and the United States are the two largest economies in the world and also the largest tourism markets in the world. They need to assume their important responsibility and play an important role in mitigating the impact of the pandemic, and especially in boosting the recovery and development of the global tourism market in the post-pandemic era. This means much to the development of their relations, to their economic recovery and development, to the creation of tens of millions of jobs and to the recovery and development of the world economy.

China-U.S. relations need to be examined from multiple angles and at multiple levels. But either way, bilateral relations cannot expand without the participation and support of people in both countries, including people-to-people exchanges and tourism cooperation. There is a global consensus that for countries with different cultures, languages, histories, faiths and social systems, tourism is one of the best ways for them — especially for their people — to interact and develop friendship and a close affinity with each other.

It has been proved that tourism cooperation is a sector in which China and the United States have the most extensive consensus and the fewest divisions. So it can produce the biggest impact with the smallest amount of investment. In addition to strengthening the social foundation for the sound development of bilateral relations, tourism cooperation promises to give a strong boost to two-way economic cooperation and contribute to enhanced relations between the world’s two major economies.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, China-U.S. exchange and cooperation in the tourism sector has entered a period of healthy development. In 2008, the United States was approved by China as a destination for package tours by Chinese citizens. In 2016, more than 5 million people traveled between the two countries, including 2.25 million U.S. visitors to China and 3.1 million Chinese visitors to the U.S. On average, about 17,000 people traveled between the two countries on a daily basis, with a flight every 17 minutes.

In the following years, both countries continued the momentum of frequent people-to-people exchanges. For example, with the support of the Chinese and U.S. governments, several working mechanisms were established, including the China-U.S. Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) meetings, the China-U.S. Tourism Leadership Summit, the China-U.S. Tourism Cooperation Forum and the China-U.S. Tourism Year. According to U.S. statistics, Chinese tourists spent an average of $6,000 per trip and every 65 Chinese tourists created one job in the United States.

These days, however, Chinese citizens are less ready to travel to the country, either for education or leisure, because of the pandemic and U.S. visa restrictions on China. This is something both countries need to focus on.

To better harness the important role of tourism cooperation in the development of China-U.S. relations, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer the following advice.

First, China and the United States need to stay committed to the consolidation and expansion of people-to-people exchanges.

Both sides should encourage and expand exchanges, create more channels of exchange for think tanks, the media, youth, tourism and other sectors to consolidate the social foundation and a positive public opinion of relations.

Second, in light of the progress of the global pandemic response, China and the United States need to engage in people-to-people exchanges and tourism cooperation in a gradual fashion and with full consultation.

In the near future, exchange activities can be launched in the form of online meetings, videoconferences and events based on new media. In this way, tourism authorities, travel associations, tourism companies and think tanks in both countries can leverage their roles to develop long-term cooperation plans and make preparations for cooperation programs.

When the pandemic comes to an end and if conditions permit, the two countries can rapidly expand their people-to-people exchanges and launch activities in the tourism sector. In this regard, group travel can be seen as a priority, because it is easy to control and manage. In fact, both countries have a great deal of experience in this area.

Third, China and the United States need to restore old working mechanisms and establish new ones. Original mechanisms, such as the China-U.S. Tourism High-Level Dialogue, can be resumed in due course to promote direct dialogue between tourism authorities and to better respond to issues of common concern.

The two sides can also discuss topics of mutual concern within multilateral frameworks, such as the G20 Tourism Ministers’ Meeting and the APEC Tourism Working Group Meeting. In addition, in light of the conditions on the ground, they can establish new mechanisms for tourism exchanges and cooperation to spur even more practical cooperation.

Fourth, China and the United States need to promote cooperation across the whole industry chain.

As the world’s two largest economies, China and the United States have a wide range of industrial categories, long industrial chains and sophisticated technologies, all of which present a broad basis and space for cooperation. Starting in the tourism sector, the two sides can promote cooperation across a whole industry, including the flow of people, financial cooperation, equipment manufacturing and smart tourism.

Meanwhile, they need to open wider to tourism investment, consider building hotels and restaurants, tourist attractions and other infrastructure together, and work together with academic institutions specialized in tourism development. In both countries, I hope that the central and local governments can continue to support tourism as a pillar of the national economy.

As long as both sides engage in candid dialogues and pursue win-win cooperation, I believe that the future of their tourism industry will be promising and that the friendship between the two peoples will last well into the future.