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Chinese tourism to Canada still lags behind pre-pandemic levels, data shows

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Chinese tourism to Canada still lags pre-pandemic, data shows
WATCH: Statistics Canada data shows a slow recovery for the country's tourism sector in some areas. Amid ongoing tensions, trips from China are down a long way from what they used to be. Global's Nathaniel Dove looks at what that means for the economy and whether the visits could resume – Mar 11, 2024

Data released by Statistics Canada shows Chinese tourism is far behind pre-pandemic levels, reaching barely a third of those numbers last year as tensions remain fraught between Ottawa and Beijing.

An industry spokesperson told Global News the visits had brought in billions of dollars in 2019.

Statistics Canada figures show a rising number of visits from China to Canada in the years leading up to the pandemic. Nearly 625,000 people visited in 2016 and 2018 saw the highest number, 757,000, dropping slightly to 748,607 visits in 2019.

That was the year after China detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in December 2018 in what was widely viewed as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou by Canadian authorities at the behest of the United States.

Pandemic restrictions reduced the number to just 41,500 in 2021. The drop-off began in March 2020 with visits plummeting to 5,200, and just 930 visited in April of that year.

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A little more than 225,000 Chinese visitors journeyed to Canada in 2023.

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Documents on fired Winnipeg scientists released

Beth Potter, Tourism Industry Association of Canada president and CEO, told Global News the numbers had been growing prior to COVID-19 because many people were visiting friend and family, attending school or travelling for business.

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In all, she said Chinese tourist brought in $2 billion in spending in 2019 – more than $2,500 per trip.

“You can see that they’re high-value visitors to Canada and have a huge impact on our local economy,” she said.

Since the pandemic, she said other regions, countries and, above all, Canadians have been visiting more and spending more money on travel. But she clarified “nobody is back to 100 per cent yet.”

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She said Americans, Europeans and people from the Asia Pacific region are visiting Canada more.

Visits from China represented the second largest group in 2019, according to Statistics Canada. Potter said a large hurdle remains for travellers who may want to come to Canada from China.

In August 2023, the Chinese government removed COVID-19 travel restrictions on group tours for many countries, reinstating “Approved Destination Status” for places like the United States and most European states – but not Canada.

“While individual Chinese travellers are able to travel to Canada,” Potter said, speaking from Ottawa, “group travel is primarily affected by not having an [Approved Destination Status].”

Global News asked the Chinese embassy in Ottawa about the status but did not hear back by deadline.

Embassy staff previously told Global News “[t]he Canadian side has repeatedly hyped up the so-called ‘Chinese interference,’ and rampant and discriminatory anti-Asian acts and words are rising significantly in Canada.”
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Click to play video: 'CSIS: China sought to influence 2 federal elections'
CSIS: China sought to influence 2 federal elections

Global News and the Globe and Mail have reported on allegations of foreign interference from Beijing in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 elections, and the next phase of the public inquiry into foreign interference is set to hear more witnesses later this month.

Tensions between Ottawa and Beijing have not abated.

In 2021 the Public Health Agency of Canada, acting on advice from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), fired scientists Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng from working at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg.

Subsequent investigations, including by CSIS and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), determined that Qiu hid her relationships with Chinese research associations and shipped some materials from the Winnipeg lab without authorization.

Recently released documents show Qiu had “extensive ties to Chinese research universities and entities” that were not properly disclosed, and concluded that the scientists were a likely threat to national security, but that their alleged actions do not appear to have been guided by foreign agents.

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Potter said the tourism industry in both countries have “working relationships” and are working to “encourage Chinese visitation again” but that if numbers don’t increase, the sector will need to look at attracting other travellers.

— with files from Global News’ Saba Aziz and Alex Boutilier

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