"Ni hao": in Tokyo, in the tourist district of Asakusa, cartoonist Masashi Higashitani recites a few words of Chinese. No question of being rusty for the expected return of travelers after the end of the mandatory quarantine announced by Beijing.
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Before the pandemic, the cartoonist used to line up greetings in Chinese, “Ni hao”, he explains, daubing a table.
Only 450,000 Chinese had visited neighboring Japan in 2003. Sixteen years later, they were nearly 9.6 million and by far the largest group of foreign travelers.
With 20% of his customers coming from China at that time, Mr. Higashitani and his employees had to force themselves to remember a few formulas in Chinese to communicate.
Although impatient to find these tourists, the cartoonist fears that too massive an influx “will exceed (his) capacities”, after having been forced to reduce its workforce because of COVID.
"I also fear that we have to be more careful about anti-virus measures," he added to AFP.
Beijing has indeed surprised the world by announcing at the end of December the end of the compulsory quarantines at the entrance from January 8.
The Chinese rushed to book plane tickets in stride. Destination Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and South Korea.
Elsewhere, the move has been met with mistrust, with several countries imposing restrictions on Chinese arrivals, such as a negative PCR test.
But these tourists represent a significant financial windfall. Before the pandemic, they accounted for a third of visitors to South Korea and were in the top 3 in Thailand and Indonesia.
“Not the time”
In Seoul, Son Kyung-rak is already preparing to welcome a tide of travelers from the mainland.
“We are looking to hire and increase inventory,” he says at his pancake stand in the popular Myeongdong district.
“Chinese tourists are our first customers, the more the merrier”.
The Seoul authorities are more reserved.
The absence of the Chinese has certainly "been a blow to our tourism industry", recognizes Yun Ji-suk, an official from the Ministry of Culture.
“But now is not the time to be active in tourism because of the current situation linked to COVID,” he tempers.
The sudden end of the “zero COVID” strategy in China was indeed followed by a wave of massive contamination, and the data transmitted by Beijing is highly criticized.
Some countries have gone so far as to ban the arrival of travelers from China on their territory.
For its part, Seoul has limited flights. Travelers from the mainland, Macau and Hong Kong will have to present a negative test before boarding. Those specifically departing from China will again be tested on landing.
Japan made similar decisions for mainland Chinese. Travelers from Hong Kong and Macao are however exempt.
Other major host countries such as Indonesia, where two million Chinese visited each year before the pandemic, have chosen not to impose any restrictions.
Restaurateurs established on the paradise island of Bali hope for a rebound in Chinese attendance and to see their establishments once again display “full”.
"Before the pandemic, we had a lot of Chinese customers... At least 100 to 200 a day," Kadek Sucana, who runs a seafood restaurant in Jimbaran, told AFP.
But if Beijing has relaxed its health policy, travel agencies still do not have the right to resume business.
And since the rush that followed the announcement of the end of mandatory quarantines, airlines seem unable to meet the high demand.
In Asia, we therefore foresee a rather slow return of Chinese tourists. Indonesia, for example, expects just over 250,000 Chinese visitors in 2023, a far cry from its pre-COVID figures.
Thailand hopes for five million. This is more than half as much as in 2019, despite the absence of restrictions imposed by Bangkok.
The tourism sector weighed for nearly 20% in the Thai economy, supported first by Chinese visitors.
"This is an opportunity to restore our economy and recover from the losses we have suffered for almost three years," the country's Minister of Public Health, Anutin Charnvirakul, summed up on Thursday.