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China issues travel warning for Canada

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Political tensions between China and Canada were heightened this month when the two countries issued travel warnings about each other
  • The diplomatic spat has led some Canadian tourism marketers and Canadian brands to suspend advertising campaigns or delay product launches in China
  • It has also caused some concern for Canadian educators that tensions between the two governments could put a damper on Chinese student mobility to Canada

So much can change in the span of one year. In early 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared it the “year of China–Canada tourism,” part of an overall goal of furthering the relationship between the two countries. In support of the initiative, Canada worked to increase branding efforts in China and set a target of doubling Chinese tourism to Canada by 2021. With international education trends often influenced by underlying tourism and migration patterns, Canadian educators looked poised to welcome still more Chinese students to their campuses. Chinese students make up the largest proportion of international students in Canada, accounting for roughly 30% of all foreign students enrolled in Canadian education institutions as of 2017.

As of mid-January 2019, however, the tourism and international education sectors find themselves in a more uncertain position as a diplomatic rift between Canada and China seems to deepen by the week.

Chinese executive arrested

In December of 2018, at the request of the United States, Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies. Ms Meng faces extradition to the US on charges of violating US trade sanctions against Iran. The arrest enraged China, and the Chinese government has since carried out a series of retaliatory measures, detaining two Canadians in China on vague charges, and this week, sentencing another Canadian to death on a drug trafficking charge. Mr Schellenberg had previously been sentenced to 15 years for the alleged crime, but a speedy retrial concluded with the court deciding that the previous sentence was too light and that the death penalty was warranted.

The Canadian government has called the death sentence “arbitrary” and, on 14 January, issued a travel warning for Canadian citizens living in China. In response, the Chinese government called on Canada to stop making “irresponsible” remarks and the very next day issued its own travel warning for Chinese in Canada based on the “arbitrary detention of a Chinese citizen for a third country.”

A pause on marketing

Even before the newly announced travel warnings, Canadian tourism agencies had taken steps to curtail their marketing in China in the wake of the furor caused by Ms Meng’s arrest. In a December 2018 email to Canada’s Global News, Emma Slieker, a spokesperson for Destination Canada, Canada’s governmental tourism agency, confirmed that,

“Destination Canada, along with co-invested partners, has temporarily paused our current marketing efforts in China.”

This decision included halting an advertising campaign Destination Canada had been running to reach potential Chinese tourists on China’s main social media platform, Weibo.

More than 584,000 Chinese tourists had arrived in Canada by September of 2018, and Destination Canada said that the more than 95,000 who came in September alone represented a “surge.” The revenue attached to such a surge is massive. In 2016, more than CDN$1.6 billion dollars were contributed by Chinese tourists to the Canadian economy. Before the tensions between the two countries began, the Canadian government had highlighted some of the sectors that were most likely to be popular among Chinese tourists as they visited Canada during 2018, the much-anticipated “Canada-China Year of Tourism.” Roxanne Hamel, a Global Affairs Canada spokesperson noted,

“The Canadian brand is very strong when it comes to winter apparel. Products and services associated with healthy living are also popular. Canada is known for having a clean environment and Chinese tourists and consumers are very attracted to food and natural products that are grown and sold in Canada for that reason.”

“Ontario ginseng is popular amongst Chinese consumers as well as other vitamins and nutraceuticals. Blueberries, and cranberries, wine, beer and spirits, private health services, winter sports gear and sporting experiences and activities are great examples of things that will appeal to Chinese tourists.”

In particular, Canadian businesses providing winter sports-related products and services were expected to profit from Chinese visitors as a result of the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing. China’s goal is to get 300 million people involved in winter sports by then.

Canada a popular destination

Canada is a top destination for Chinese students, hosting a significant share of all Chinese students studying abroad. For Canadian educators, the recent example of Saudi Arabia’s recall of its scholarship students as a result of a diplomatic spat looms large when trying to predict what may happen to Chinese enrolments in 2019.

For now, Canadian educators are concerned but hopeful that the longstanding goodwill built up between Canadian and Chinese institutions will serve to buffer them from the current tensions. The Globe and Mail reports that Universities Canada, the national organisation representing Canadian universities, has met with Canadian government officials to address concerns and has been in contact with the Chinese embassy in Canada as well. Universities Canada President Paul Davidson told the Globe that,

“We have to be careful on how this unfolds because it’s so sensitive. We have been through rough patches in the past … There’s a lot of goodwill on both sides about the value of Canadian higher education and the positive experiences Chinese students have, and we’ve had no indication that the flow from China is going to be affected by this current situation.”

At the same time, Mr Davidson acknowledged that student flows from the huge Chinese student market are changing as a result of other factors. These include demographic shifts, increasing higher education capacity and education quality in China, and increased recruiting efforts by China in the same markets traditionally dominated by leading Western destinations.

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