Air pollution in China cutting tourism numbers

A man wears a mask in thick haze in Beijing in January. China has seen fewer tourists this year, with worsening air pollution partly to blame. (Associated Press)

BEIJING – China, one of the most visited countries in the world, has seen sharply fewer tourists this year – with worsening air pollution partly to blame.

Numbers of foreign visitors have declined following January’s “Airpocalypse,” when already eye-searing levels of smog soared to new highs.

Tourists have been put off by news about smog and other problems, said Frano Ilic of travel agency Studiosus in Munich, Germany. He said the number of people booking trips to China through his company has fallen 16 percent this year.

“You are reading about smog. You are reading about political things,” said Ilic. “All the news which is coming from China concerning the non-touristic things are bad, frankly speaking,”

China is the world’s No. 3 destination for international travel after France and the United States. Weakness in visitor numbers could hurt government efforts to reduce reliance on trade-driven manufacturing by promoting cleaner service industries such as tourism. Foreign visitors are outnumbered by Chinese tourists but spend more.

The decline could be long-term if Beijing fails to make visible progress in combatting pollution, experts say.

That China’s air and water are badly polluted following three decades of breakneck growth is not news. But January’s record-setting bout of smog got worldwide news coverage and was so bad some longtime foreign residents left the country.

From January to June, the total number of foreign visitors, including business travelers and residents, entering China declined by 5 percent to just under 13 million compared with the same period last year, according to the China National Tourism Administration. Overall, visitors from Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas all declined.

In Beijing, with major attractions including the Great Wall and the Imperial Palace, the drop is even more striking. The number of foreign tourists visiting the Chinese capital fell by 15 percent in the first six months of the year to 1.9 million, according to the Beijing Tourism Administration.

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