VANCOUVER — Canadian tour operators specializing in travel to China say the growing diplomatic rift between the two countries is scaring their clients away, while those that bring Chinese tourists to Canada foresee a similar drop in interest that could put a billion-dollar industry at risk.
“We’re suffering. We are suffering,” said Julius Yan, who owns Laurus Travel, a Vancouver-based agency that has focused on tours to Asia for about two decades.
Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver airport on Dec. 1 at the request of the U.S. Justice Department touched off an escalating political spat with China. It resulted in the detention of two Canadians in China, the imposition of a death sentence on a Canadian convicted of drug smuggling and duelling travel advisories warning their respective citizens to reconsider any plans to travel between the two countries.
Yan has fielded a lot of calls and emails from concerned Canadian travellers since the Canadian travel advisory was issued — though interest from Americans has been picking up despite the unfolding situation.
Many of the Canadians who contacted him wanted to cancel their trips, he said, which last between nine and 33 days, and cost anywhere from $1,625 to $17,550 before airfare.
He’s spent a lot of time reassuring those clients that law-abiding tourists shouldn’t worry.
“It would be very, very foolish for the Chinese to do anything to innocent tourists,” he said. “There’s no reason for the Chinese government to frame a Canadian who goes there to spend money, right?”
Yan managed to convince his nervous clients not to cancel their trips, but to postpone them by a few months to a September or October departure date.
He’s swallowing the costs associated with that switch, including airline cancellation fees and hotel deposits.
“We can’t punish our customers,” Yan said, adding that if there was no political crisis, the company would go strictly by the book, but in a situation like this, it has to be sympathetic.
This week a school in Calgary decided to cancel a spring trip to China for 25 students and teachers “due to this increased risk level,” said a Calgary Board of Education spokeswoman in a statement.
“As long as the current government of Canada risk level is in place, we will not have students travelling to China,” said Joanne Anderson.
In addition to cancellations and deferrals, Yan said he’s also concerned that Canadians who wanted to visit China are now not booking tours.
In the 48 hours since Canada’s travel advisory changed, the number of Canadians clicking on the agency’s internet ads has been dropping, he said.
“That’s a very strong indicator.”
Yan was the only travel agency operator specializing in tours to China willing to speak to The Canadian Press on the record about the political feud’s impact on business.
There are signs the tension is having similar repercussions on the number of Chinese travellers interested in coming to Canada.
318 Arctic Colour Tours, which caters to Chinese tourists, offers several trips throughout the Arctic, including Aurora-chasing expeditions. While no one has cancelled a visit yet, the start of this year has been slower than previous years, said Ying Lai, a part owner, from Whitehorse.
She said it’s unclear if political tensions are to blame. Other Whitehorse tour operators have also reported fewer bookings, she said, but it could be a result of recent economic headwinds in China.
Still, she thinks the political situation may influence whether or not potential clients decide to book tours in Canada.
“They may decide to not come,” said Lai.
Chinese tourists are a vital part of Canada’s tourism industry. In October 2018, 64,113 trips were made from China to Canada, according to Statistic Canada’s most recent data. That’s up 19.5 per cent from the same month the previous year.
Tourists spend an average of $2,464 on each trip and contributed an estimated $1.7 billion to the economy in 2017, according to Destination Canada, a Crown corporation that helps stimulate demand and tourism export revenue for Canada in several countries, including China.
Last year was dubbed the Canada-China year of tourism in an effort to create closer ties between the countries’ citizens and grow Chinese tourism in the country.
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Aleksandra Sagan, The Canadian Press