Yunnan out of step with GMS neighbours

CHIANG RAI, 24 May 2019: Yunnan packed to the gills annually with domestic tourists has little incentive or even inclination to roll out the welcome mat for more international visitors.

The Chinese province is already the most visited province in the land when domestic and international visits are lumped together. The latter estimated at 7 million in 2018 is just a drop in the ocean compared with the estimate that domestic visits top 657 million annually.

Figures are irrelevant other than to show Yunnan province remains a leisure travel playground for millions of visitors and the sheer volume puts off any attempt to dive deeper and test just how the Yunnan travel product fits in the Mekong Region’s tourism picture.

It probably doesn’t. Yunnan and Guang Xi, the two provinces in China that are members of the Greater Mekong Sub-region tourism bloc, are as different as chalk and cheese when compared with the other members (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam).

The first contrast is the vast chasm between China and the five other country members when you consider visa policies. China’s visa policies are restrictive and out of sync with the digital online business era where the simple eVisa reigns supreme. Then airline links between the two Chinese provinces and the five GMS countries are inconvenient, time wasting and fares are prohibitively expensive.

Instead of being a jewel of the Mekong Region a must- visit destination that can be conveniently combined with trips to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos or Vietnam, China travel is stressful starting with the cumbersome visa process.

Even though Yunnan has more than 7 million foreign visitors most of them travel via Chinese gateway cities on the eastern seaboard rather than gateway cities in the Mekong region (ASEAN).

Yunnan province claims to have set up a new strategy for the development of tourism, “summarised in an International Tourism Marketing Strategy and Action Plan formulated and executed by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) at the request of the Yunnan provincial government.”

That lofty statement suggests there are no practical takeaways or goals, no scorecard, no checks and balances to measure success.

It looks good to have a strategy to chat about at the Mekong Tourism Forum next week, but in practical terms, it skirts around the one simple step required to get tourism rolling from the gateways cities of the Mekong Region. China must introduce a simple, user-friendly eVisa scheme the type Myanmar so successfully introduced to boost tourist arrivals.  Or forget the inbound tourism storyline.

On paper, the strategy calls for Yunnan to turn itself into a gateway attracting tourists from South Asia and Southeast Asia (ASEAN) including the millions of foreigners who visit these two regions on holiday trips from their homelands in Europe and the Middle East.

The connection between Yunnan and the countries of the Greater Mekong Sub-region is wanting. It is not just the lack of direct flights and competitive fares that curtails success, but the fact that hardly any of the leading tour operators dealing with Europeans bother to combine a holiday in Thailand or its neighbours with a visit to destinations in Yunnan.  All the sellable trips of China that feature Yunnan are packaged from a starting point in major eastern seaboard cities in China and Hong Kong. Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are hardly ever the starting point of a tour to Yunnan.

So it doesn’t really matter that Yunnan has penned a romantic sounding “Yunnan Tourism Revolution” fleshed out with its 13th Five-Year Plan introduced in 2018, or that there are five strategic directions one of which is to declare 2019 Yunnan’s International Tourism Year. Unfortunately, the first quarter has already passed on this low-key campaign.

Yunnan talks about promoting local music, cultural festivals and traditions as well as folk sports games this year, which is exactly what it has been talking about for decades.

The logistics and the way tour operators package travel to the Mekong Region are pushed to one side.

What is not on offer is an eVisa. Flights take all day and the tour costs are prohibitive if you intend to combine China with any of the Mekong Tourism countries. No matter how many tourism strategies are published the end game remains the same for travellers. China is way over the horizon well out of sight and out of mind for international travellers who head for Southeast Asia’s tropical holiday destinations.  

Kunming Changshui International Airport Arrivals for Top 12 Countries of Origin (2017)

Country of Origin Arrivals
Thailand 593,343
Korea 320,905
Singapore 280,228
Malaysia 228,525
United States 221,534
United Kingdom 157,638
France 157,620
Germany 125,202
Japan 113,069
Italy 98,977
Australia 92,718
Canada 76,757