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Coveted Chinese tourists may be wary of US, Las Vegas travel

Updated May 21, 2020 - 10:53 am

Chinese tourists are some of the most sought-after guests on the Strip, spending roughly 1½ times as much as the average visitor from overseas.

But there may be fewer Chinese tourists traveling to Las Vegas amid the global pandemic and heightened tensions between the U.S. and China.

“Chinese tourism is going to be low,” said Chunjuan Nancy Wei, an associate professor of international political economy and diplomacy at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. “Coronavirus has no doubt soured public opinions on both sides.”

Pointing fingers

In the early months of the coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump put much of the focus on the coronavirus’ origin, calling it the “China Virus.

Last month, he speculated that China could have unleashed the virus on the world through some kind of horrible “mistake” and suggested the release could have been intentional.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is about 8 miles from a market that is considered a possible source for the virus. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on May 3 that there’s “enormous evidence” the virus began in the lab, World Health Organization emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan told The Associated Press that Pompeo’s theory is speculative.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the clearinghouse for the web of U.S. spy agencies, has ruled out the virus being man-made but is still investigating the source of the global pandemic, according to the AP.

But it’s not just the U.S. pointing fingers. A rumor circulating in China contends the coronavirus originated in the U.S.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, tweeted March 12: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” Zhao provided no evidence.

China has said the tweet did not constitute an official statement, and China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, called the theory “crazy.”

Terry Branstad, the U.S. ambassador to China, said in April that Zhao’s comment was “really outrageous and counterproductive from the Chinese perspective because there’s no credibility with that.”

It’s hard to know just how many Chinese residents buy into this rumor and others like it, said John Osburg, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester in New York.

“It’s clear that the rumor has circulated very widely on Chinese social media, not just on a few fringe corners of Chinese cyberspace,” he said.

Impact on relations

An April report from the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization Eurasia Group Foundation found positive views of the U.S. among those in China have fallen about 20 percent since last year. Another report released last month from the Pew Research Center shows roughly two-thirds of Americans now have unfavorable views of China, from 47 percent in 2017 to 66 percent this year.

Wei said the change in sentiment toward the United States is apparent in a new way to refer to the country.

In Chinese, the name for the United States is “Mei Guo,” which means “beautiful country.”

But ever since this dispute between the origins of the virus arose, she said some are calling the U.S. “Chou Guo” on the internet, meaning “ugly country.” Others have replaced the usual Chinese characters for America, which mean “beautiful, powerful and strong,” with characters with the same pronunciation that mean “incapable of testing” to mock the country’s COVID-19 testing deficiency.

“The dispute over the origins of the pandemic with some U.S. politicians referring to it as the ‘China virus’ has made (its way) into the public psyche (in China),” Wei said.

Osburg said there’s “clearly” been an uptick in anti-American and anti-foreign sentiment in China in recent months and that the state-controlled media in the country has pushed the narrative that foreign countries, “especially the United States,” have bungled their response to the virus.

“This significant drop of favorability could have a major impact on (Chinese residents’) willingness to travel to the U.S.,” Wei said.

Wei pointed out that leisure travel is not high on most people’s agenda during the global pandemic, and many won’t have the financial means to travel abroad anyway.

Growing death tolls in the U.S. also “do not help,” she said.

“Images of long lines outside food banks, soaring unemployment, collapsing GDP, and politicians’ vows of punishing China all suggest to them this is not a good time to visit the U.S., including Las Vegas,” Wei said.

May data from nationwide marketing initiative Brand USA shows those in China are 37 percent less likely to travel internationally in the next 12 months, compared to last year. Concerns over travel restrictions, limited experiences due to COVID-19 and fears of contracting the virus were their top reasons for holding back on travel.

Impact on travel

According to data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, visitors from China made up the fifth-largest group of international visitors in Las Vegas in 2018, accounting for 4 percent of all international tourists.

While Las Vegas sees more visitors from Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Australia, visitors from China have proven themselves extremely valuable to the tourism-driven city.

On average, Chinese tourists spend $3,127 during their trip to the U.S., roughly $179 per day, according to LVCVA data. Meanwhile, the average overseas visitor spends $2,039 per trip.

“They are an important and valued visitor to Las Vegas,” LVCVA spokeswoman Lori Nelson-Kraft said.

But it will take time before many of these customers return. Nelson-Kraft said international visitation in Las Vegas won’t see a rebound until a treatment or vaccine is discovered, and Nevada has the ability to widely test and contact-trace the virus.

“We believe one of the first opportunities to attract international visitation will come from Canada and Mexico, due to their close proximity and high level of interest in visiting Las Vegas,” she said.

In 2018, these two countries accounted for 47 percent of all international visitation in Las Vegas.

Wei believes that in order for Chinese visitation in Las Vegas to bounce back, the U.S. will need to get the virus’ spread under control and form friendlier relations with China — something she suspects will be “unlikely” in an election year.

But Osburg doesn’t think anti-American sentiments will be a significant factor in Chinese people’s decision to travel to Las Vegas, for either business or leisure. He said some could actually be even more eager to travel to Las Vegas trade shows for business purposes, since many factories in China are “desperate for orders” after being forced to shut down.

“I think economic factors will be more significant than fears surrounding the virus or lingering hostility to the U.S.,” he said. “However, if infection rates spike up again, then fears surrounding the virus will definitely have a significant impact on travel to the U.S.”

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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