China restarts overseas group tours but leaves Australia off the destination list

China is resuming group tours to 20 countries from February 6, but Australia is not on the destination list.

Zhang Cheng, owner of Great Wall Travel Services in Melbourne, believes it is retaliation for Australia imposing additional COVID testing requirements on visitors from China. 

Ms Zhang’s agency is one of the operators authorised to run guided group tours under the China Approved Destination Status (ADS) scheme.

“There haven’t been any ADS Tours for the past three years, and it’s not likely to return any time soon,” she said.

Independent Chinese tourists are not part of the scheme and have been allowed to come to Australia since Beijing relaxed international travel restrictions on January 8. 

On a bright blue day, you see an Asian woman in bright pink take a selfie in front of one of the Sydney Opera House sails.
Independent travellers from China have been allowed to come to Australia since January 8. (Reuters: David Munoz)

Health Minister Mark Butler said at the time the requirement that all travellers from China provide a negative COVID-19 test result was a temporary measure due to the lack of detailed information about China’s epidemiological situation.

A range of other countries also imposed testing requirements on Chinese visitors, including the United Kingdom, the United States and France.

None of them were on the approved list for group tours either.

Russia, Thailand and New Zealand were among the countries that will be able to receive group tours organised by tour agencies and online travel companies, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced on Friday.

Ms Zhang said the COVID testing measures Australia was imposing on visitors from China were “grossly discriminatory practices”.

“Why should only people from China [be tested] but not everyone from overseas?” she said. 

“Chinese tourists understand which country is more friendly.

“To recover the tourism industry, Australia and China need to build a mutual trust.”

The ABC has contacted China’s embassy in Canberra to find out when ADS tours will resume in Australia but did not receive a response. 

a woman gets PCR test
Chinese people were not allowed to leave China for tourism purposes for three years. (AP: Ng Han Guan)

NSW Tourism Industry Council senior executive Paula Martin said China was Australia’s largest inbound tourism market and their absence during the pandemic had hurt the industry. 

In 2019 — before the pandemic — more than 1.4 million visitors came to Australia from China, spending an estimated $10.3 billion.

Ms Martin called for more support for tourism operators and diversification of the international market.

“We need to be able to ensure that our tourism operators, which are mostly small businesses, have got the finance, they’ve got the skills, they’ve got the digital enablement to be able to update their products to welcome visitors,” she said.

“India could potentially rival the size of a Chinese visitation,” she added. “We need to consider South-East Asia as a whole, which is actually larger than China.”

A group of travellers wearing masks arriving in at an airport.
Thailand’s deputy prime minister and minister of public health went to Bangkok’s airport to welcome and hand out souvenirs to the first group of Chinese tourists arriving on January 9.(Reuters: Athit Perawongmetha)

No ‘immediate threat’

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson told the ABC there was optimism about Chinese visitors’ significant interest in travel to Australia.

“We are confident Australia’s reputation as a premium tourism destination will see Chinese visitors returning now that China’s COVID border restrictions have eased, whether or not Australia is included in the pilot resumption of China’s outbound group tours under the Approved Destination Status scheme.”

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