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Chinese tourism to US drops first time in 15 years

DETROIT, May 28: After more than a decade of rapid growth, Chinese travel to the U.S. is falling. And that has cities, malls and other tourist spots scrambling to reverse the trend.

Travel from China to the U.S. fell 5.7% in 2018 to 2.9 million visitors, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office, which collects data from U.S. Customs forms. It was the first time since 2003 that Chinese travel to the U.S. slipped from the prior year.

Friction between the U.S. and China is one reason for the slowdown. The Trump administration first imposed tariffs on Chinese solar panels and washing machines in January 2018, and the trade war has escalated from there. The U.S. now has a 25 per cent tariff on USD 200 billion worth of Chinese imports, while China has retaliated with tariffs on USD 60 billion of U.S. imports.

Last summer, China issued a travel warning for the U.S., telling its citizens to beware of shootings, robberies and high costs for medical care. The U.S. shot back with its own warning about travel to China.

Wang Haixia, who works at an international trade company in Beijing, traveled to the U.S. in May for her sister’s graduation. She and her family planned to spend 10 days in Illinois and New York.

Wang says she might have stayed longer but doesn’t want to contribute to the U.S. economy amid the trade war.

“I cannot cancel this trip because I promised my sister I would go to her commencement,” she said. “My relatives will contribute more than 100,000 yuan to America just staying for 10 days, and that’s enough.”

There are other reasons behind the slowdown. Economic uncertainty in China has travelers at the lower end of the market vacationing closer to home, says Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of the Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute, which found that 56 per cent of travelers leaving China in the last three months of 2018 went to Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan compared with 50 per cent in 2017. Those who do travel farther are seeking out more exotic destinations like Croatia, Morocco and Nepal.

Chinese travel to the U.S. had already been moderating from its breakneck pace earlier this decade. In 2000, 249,000 Chinese visited the U.S. That tripled to 802,000 by 2010, then tripled again by 2015, in part because of higher incomes, better long-haul flight connections and an easing of visa restrictions, according to McKinsey, the consulting firm.

The U.S. welcomed more than 3 million Chinese visitors in 2016 and 2017. But year-over-year growth edged up just 4 per cent in 2017, the slowest pace in more than a decade.

Most industry-watchers agree that any downturn is temporary, since China’s middle class will only continue to expand. The U.S. government forecasts Chinese tourism will grow 2% this year to 3.3 million visitors, and will reach 4.1 million visitors in 2023.

“Even if the Chinese economy cools, it’s still going to continue to be a very good source of growth for the travel industry,” said David Huether, senior vice president of research for the U.S. Travel Association.

In general, international travel to the U.S. has been declining. Overall data for 2018 hasn’t been released yet, but international travel fell 2% in 2016 and was flat in 2017.

But because China commands some of the highest tourism traffic to the U.S., any falloff will be felt by destinations that have come to rely on Chinese spending power. In 2017, the country had the fifth highest number of U.S.-bound tourists, behind Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Japan. Ten years earlier, China wasn’t even on the top 10 list, falling behind countries like Germany, France, South Korea and Australia, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office.

China didn’t crack the top 10 list until 2011 and has been climbing ever since. Spending by Chinese visitors — which doesn’t include students — ballooned more than 600 per cent between 2008 and 2016, to nearly $18.9 billion. In 2017, that fell by 1 per cent to USD 18.8 billion, or about 12% of overall tourism spending.

To hold onto those dollars, experts say the tourism industry must do more to keep up with Chinese travelers and their changing needs.

Larry Yu, a professor of hospitality management at George Washington University, notes that Chinese tourists — particularly younger ones — are increasingly planning trips using social media apps like WeChat and are less likely to book through big tour groups. They have also rapidly adopted smartphone-based payment systems.

Destinations should invest in those technologies now if they want to continue attracting Chinese tourists, says David Becker, former CEO of Attract China, a New York-based travel consultancy.

“A lot of companies looked at the Chinese market as easy money, but we have to be relevant to the Chinese,” Becker said. Attract China, for instance, has helped luxury stores in Manhattan incorporate Jeenie, a live translation app, and add Alipay and WeChat Pay for mobile payments.

Others have also been stepping up their efforts. The Beverly Center mall in Los Angeles used to cater to busloads of Chinese tourists. Now, it’s focusing on small groups of less than 10 VIP shoppers, says Susan Vance, the mall’s marketing and sponsorship director. The mall has also pushed stores to offer China UnionPay, a digital payment service. More than 100 stores now have it, Vance says, up from three in 2014.

The Orient Express service from Paris to Istanbul set to be re-launched

PARIS, May 17: It conjures up the atmosphere of rail travel from a bygone golden age, steaming through Europe experiencing top-notch cuisine and the company of fellow passengers who could be writers or spies.

And who knows, maybe a mysterious murder along the way deep in the night...

The last true Orient Express travelled from Paris to Istanbul in 1977, drawing the curtain on almost a century of taking travellers on the fabled route from western Europe to the shores of the Bosphorus in Turkey.

The train also entered popular culture, playing a central role in celebrated books and movies, not least Agatha Christie’s 1930s novel “Murder on the Orient Express” which has inspired several films.

The brand name was acquired by French rail operator SNCF which has now, at huge expense, restored original Orient Express carriages and is mulling re-launching the service.

SNCF is this week exhibiting seven original carriages at Gare de l’Est station in Paris which have been returned to their original splendour after seven years of restoration.

Three are dining cars which were used on the actual Orient Express in its heyday while the four others were used on routes run by the company in the south of France and other European routes.

The cars display the height of luxury with plush armchairs for seats, immaculately varnished wooden tables and art deco fittings.

SNCF picked up the brand from la Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL), after the Orient Express service stopped in 1977, but barely exploited it until it began restoring the carriages from 2011.

“To restore them, we went into our archives to find the original plans or samples of tissues and so forth,” said Guillaume de Saint Lager, the executive director of Orient Express.

“We used exceptional experts.”

For SNCF chief executive Guillaume Pepy the display at the Gare de l’Est could be the start of a new beginning for the Orient Express.

“It is clearly a big investment, some 14 million euros ($15.6 million), but it is an investment in railway heritage,” said Pepy.

“They are a shop window for the expertise of the SNCF in preserving heritage.”

After intense research, the SNCF found historic Orient Express carriages in a siding in Poland close to the border with Belarus and can now boast a set of 16 carriages -- including 9 sleeping cars and four saloons.

SNCF last year sold 50.1 percent in the company holding the rights to the Orient Express brand to French hotel group Accor, which wants to open luxury hotels under the name.

Meanwhile the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express -- a privately owned luxury train first established by an American entrepreneur in the 1980s -- currently plies a route between Calais in northern France, Paris, Verona and Venice in Italy.

An exhibition at Paris’ Museum of the Arab World in 2014 on the Orient Express proved a smash hit and encouraged SNCF to restore the carriages.

“Our aim is to have the Orient Express on the rails all around Europe,” said Pepy.

But whether a re-launched Orient Express will again steam between Paris and Istanbul remains to be seen.

“We need to look at the state of the carriages and see under what conditions they could travel again and how they could be brought in line with the security specifications that exist in Europe,” Pepy said.

“We are doing the technical work now and hope we can have a positive decision this summer,” he added.

Thailand extends visa-on-arrival fee waiver for India, 19 other countries until October 31

By Deepak Arora

BANGKOK, May 2: The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has announced that the Royal Thai Government has approved the extension of the visa-on-arrival fee waiver for citizens of 20 countries, including India, for another six months ie until October 31.

The decision was announced in the Royal Thai Government Gazette on April 30, reasoning it as a measure to stimulate and promote tourism as well as to enhance the kingdom’s attractiveness among foreign visitors.

Citizens of Andora, Bulgaria, Bhutan, China including Taiwan, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Fiji, India, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea, Romania, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan will be exempted from the 2,000 Baht visa-on-arrival fee for the purpose of touring in Thailand for not more than 15 days.

The government first approved the visa-on-arrival fee waiver from November 15, 2018 to January 14 and further extended the measure to April 30.

Netherlands revolts against over-tourism

AMSTERDAM, May 6: Its elegant canals, brightly-coloured tulip fields and world-class museums attract millions of tourists a year, but the Netherlands has decided that enough is enough.

In the latest revolt against the over-tourism that is crushing the life out of popular destinations, from Venice and Santorini to Thailand and Kyoto, the Dutch government is to switch from encouraging tourism to managing the visitor numbers that it already has.

The country’s tourism board is to move from “destination promotion” to “destination management”, as locals complain that tourist hordes are putting too much strain on resources and ruining the very attractions that they have come to see.

“To control visitor flow and leverage the opportunities that tourism brings with it, we must act now. Instead of destination promotion, it is now time for destination management,” the tourist board said in a strategy document which addresses the challenges to be faced between now and 2030.

The number of tourists visiting the Netherlands is expected to grow by 50 per cent in the next decade, from 19 million to 29 million, the document predicts.

The tourism board wants to divert visitors away from saturated parts of the country, such as Amsterdam, towards lesser-known attractions.

“Many other regions should also profit from the expected growth in tourism and we will stimulate new offerings,” said a spokeswoman for the tourism board.

During Easter, areas of the country famous for their tulip fields and windmills were overwhelmed by the number of visitors, with roads congested by traffic and authorities asking tourists not to trample on the flowers.

Around one million foreign tourists flocked to the Netherlands over the holiday period, while 350,000 locals also went away on day trips.

“For the people and entrepreneurs who live here the situation has become completely unacceptable,” said Bart Siemerink, the director of the Keukenhof garden, southwest of Amsterdam, where seven million flower bulbs are planted each year. “We cannot remember a year when so many people came to the park.”

The World Heritage-listed windmills of the Kinderdijk region, near Rotterdam, were also inundated by visitors, with so many cars arriving that parking was impossible.

The area’s 19 windmills, surrounded by dykes and fields, are among the most photographed attractions in the country. Following the global financial crisis of 2008, Amsterdam and other parts of the country invested heavily in tourism.

The policy was so successful that the number of tourists soared from 11 million in 2005 to 18 million in 2016.

The Netherlands joins a long list of destinations that are buckling under the pressure of too many tourists, including Barcelona, Dubrovnik in Croatia, the medieval town of Kotor in Montenegro and the Cinque Terre coastline of Liguria in northern Italy.

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