China Has Reopened, So Why Aren’t Chinese Tourists Back in Singapore in Droves?

The Chinese used to be Singapore’s top source of tourists before the pandemic, but even with China’s reopening in January, visitors have not returned in droves.

For the first five months of this year, arrivals from the world’s second-largest economy climbed to just 20% of pre-COVID-19 levels, and were overtaken by visitors from Indonesia, India and Australia.

In February, China resumed group tours to Singapore and other countries, after cancelling them for three years in its fight against COVID-19. However, overall growth in outbound tourism from China has remained tepid, compared with domestic tourism, as international flights have been slow to resume.

A total of 3.63 million Chinese tourists went to Singapore in 2019. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is targeting between 30% and 60% of this number for 2023.

In 2019, Singapore received 3.11 million visitors from Indonesia, 1.42 million from India, 1.22 million from Malaysia and 1.14 million from Australia.

Factors for the slow rebound in outbound tourism from China include higher airfares on international routes due to limited seats and more cautious spending among Chinese travelers amid the country’s slowing economic growth, said Dr. Michael Chiam, a senior tourism lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

The island-state’s high cost is also among the reasons given by Chinese tourists for picking other destinations such as Bali in Indonesia and Phuket in Thailand over Singapore during the major May Day holiday in May.

“I also wanted to visit a volcano and focus more on nature travel, but Singapore doesn’t quite offer that, compared with Indonesia,” said one individual.

Those who did visit Singapore said they were not prepared for the high costs, particularly for on-demand transport services and taxis.

Ms. Wang Ruixian, 28, who was in Singapore for a day in May, said her heart would “jump every time the taxi meter did.”

“My time in Singapore was very short, so I wanted to make the most out of the day, which meant taking Grab and taxis,” said Ms. Wang, who was making a short transit in Singapore on her way to the Maldives from Beijing.

STB acknowledged that Chinese tourist arrivals between January and May this year — at about 311,000 compared with 1.55 million in the same period in 2019 — have been modest, but believed the numbers will improve as outbound travel from China picks up.

It expects this to contribute to a total of between 12 million and 14 million visitor arrivals in 2023. In 2019, 19.12 million visitors from all over the world came to Singapore.

“Our forecast is dependent on factors such as the restoration of flight capacity and the impact of global economic and political headwinds,” said Mr. Andrew Phua, STB’s executive director for Greater China.

International flight resumptions from China have been slow. As of June, the number of weekly direct flights from China to Singapore was just about half that of 2019 levels, said STB.

With the downsized numbers, Chinese visitors are also no longer the top contributor to Singapore’s tourism receipts. In 2019, they spent over $4 billion in Singapore, but the figure fell about 85% to $602.29 million in 2022 at the height of China’s COVID-19 outbreaks.

Indonesia has overtaken China in chalking up the largest tourism receipts.

Dr. Chiam said that while the rebound of Chinese tourists to Singapore has been slower than expected, it is consistent with the lukewarm growth of China’s outbound tourism so far.

Mr. Liu Qi, who manages tours for the Chinese to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, said that trips to Singapore are currently at about 50% that of 2019 at his travel agency in Beijing.

When China first resumed group tours, travelers still needed to do COVID-19 tests to return to the country before the practice was scrapped on April 29. That deterred the Chinese from leaving because they did not want to be stuck outside the country, said Mr. Liu.

The recovery in outbound tourism has also been hampered by a recent second wave of COVID-19 within China, which may explain the slower growth in tourism to Singapore in April and May, he added.

The growth in arrivals from China to Singapore was sharpest at 72.4% between February and March, when tours first resumed, then slowed to 5.39% between April and May.

The national college entrance exam, or gaokao, in June was also a factor for the slow demand, as parents were less likely to travel in the lead-up to the crucial exam, said Mr. Liu.

He expects a travel boom to take place in July and August. “There is still a lot of pent-up demand for Singapore.”

Data from CTrip, China’s largest online travel agency, showed that Singapore remains one of Chinese tourists’ favorite overseas destinations, behind Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

The number of Chinese visitors to South Korea over the Labor Day break tripled, compared with the Chinese New Year holiday between Jan 21 and 27, while those who went to Japan doubled over the same period, according to CTrip.

Ms. Jane Sun, chief executive of Group, which runs CTrip, expects that as travel capacity continues to increase, Chinese travelers will soon seek destinations beyond Asia-Pacific such as Europe, the Middle-East, Africa and the Americas, unleashing pent-up demand.

Thailand has been the clear winner among Chinese tourists, with South-east Asia’s second-largest economy on track to receive 1 million visitors from China every month from October — levels last seen before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Its tourism authority said in May that the country is maintaining its official forecast of Chinese visitors at 5 million this year, but it could be as many as 7 million, depending on the number of flights during the high season between October and March.

Indonesia revised its target for Chinese tourist arrivals after an unexpected increase between January and March to 113,404 Chinese visitors.

Southeast Asia’s largest country had initially expected to get 255,200 visitors from China this year, but now wants to draw 361,500 — 18% of the 2 million it used to get before the pandemic.

Indonesia has also been trying to expand the Chinese’s footprint in the archipelago to destinations other than Bali, such as Lombok Island, or Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, which is in Central Java.

Factors that have dragged on recovery for outbound tourism in China include high inflation in other countries and growing unfavorable public sentiment against the Chinese that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

“Although the number of outbound travel orders increased by seven-fold during this year’s Labor Day holiday, compared with the same period last year, international flight capacity was less than half of its 2019 level,” the Economist Intelligence Unit said in an article on May 10.

High levels of inflation in countries such as Britain and France will discourage middle- and lower-income Chinese tourists, added the research unit of the Economist Group.

“Growing unfavorable public sentiment against Chinese citizens, which emerged during the pandemic, and the recent geopolitical tensions will also affect travel decisions,” the article said.

Still, tourists who visited Singapore said they would make a return visit. Ms. Wang said she would like to go to the zoo and Universal Studios next time.

“Hopefully, it will be less warm,” she added. “I also really like the Rain Vortex and the wide variety of shops at Jewel.”

Ms. Feng Chao, 37, who works in finance in Beijing, visited Singapore for two days in May with her mother as part of a five-day tour of Singapore and Malaysia, and visited Sentosa, Haji Lane and Mount Faber.

She picked Singapore and Malaysia because of their friendliness toward China. “Singapore’s law and order also provides a sense of security for travelers,” she said.

“I will definitely return because Singapore is so comfortable. People speak Mandarin too, so there is not much of a language barrier. I also love the durian ice cream wrapped in bread or biscuit that I can buy from street vendors,” she said.

Dr. Chiam said: “Chinese tourists find it easy to fly to Singapore because of its strong air connectivity. They are also familiar with our local culture and language, and find Singapore a safe place to travel to.”

He suggests boosting engagement with the Chinese on social media platforms familiar to them like Fliggy, previously known as Alitrip, Baidu and Xiaohongshu.

STB said it had been marketing the island-state to the Chinese and prepping tourism industry players even before China resumed outbound travel.

It has engaged celebrities and influencers to help with the efforts, including partnering with popular singer Jackson Wang as part of its SingapoReimagine international recovery campaign.

STB’s Mr. Phua said travel agents have been asked to design tours for Chinese visitors seeking “differentiated, unique and photo-worthy tour offerings.” Industry partners should also build their digital capabilities, using WeChat Mini Programmes and live-streaming, which Chinese travelers are familiar with, he said.

It has also been working to attract Chinese Mice — meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions — groups back to Singapore.