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Hopes high in B.C. as China lifts border rules, but tourism recovery may take months

VANCOUVER — Zhengwen Hao says the phone for his Richmond, B.C., restaurant hasn't stopped buzzing in recent days as relatives and friends in China make reservations as part of their plans to visit the province.
A young boy who arrived on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong wears a face mask and face shield at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER — Zhengwen Hao says the phone for his Richmond, B.C., restaurant hasn't stopped buzzing in recent days as relatives and friends in China make reservations as part of their plans to visit the province. 

"They called me to book dinner and some even want to host wedding parties at my business," says Hao, whose restaurant specializes in northern Chinese lamb dishes.

Hao and others in the B.C. hospitality industry are expecting a spike in tourism from China, after its government on Sunday lifted pandemic restrictions that had curtailed foreign travel for three years.

Beijing has now ended mandatory quarantine in hotels for arrivals from abroad, including returning tourists.

But some in B.C. expect it could take months before Chinese tourism numbers are back to pre-pandemic levels, with flights still scarce heading into Chinese New Year on Jan. 22.

Hao said in an interview conducted in Mandarin that the lifting of the restrictions, coupled with the new year holiday, had him expecting a "busier than usual" season.

Victor Shou, CEO of Canadian Flower Winery, said in an interview conducted in Mandarin that the lifting of the travel rules was "terrific news", since Chinese tourists previously made up about 40 per cent of the Richmond-based winery's clientele.

Richmond, just south of Vancouver, has a higher density of ethnic Chinese residents than any other city in Canada, and has long been popular among tourists for its cuisine and shopping.

Shou said some Chinese travellers would spend tens of thousands of dollars on wine, shipping it back to family and friends in China..

"Ice wines are the most popular items among Chinese tourists," he said.

"Chinese tourists usually spend $200 to $30,000 per visit at our winery. Many Chinese tourists have no idea what ice wines taste like until they visit Canada."

Destination BC says Chinese travellers were the second biggest international market for B.C. in 2019, with 333,837 visits that year.

They were the biggest spenders in the province, averaging $2,021 each. 

Monica Leeck, manager of market development for Asia Pacific and Mexico with Destination BC, said operators have been “anxiously waiting” for the Chinese reopening.

 She said Richmond, Victoria, the Okanagan, and the Canadian Rockies were all popular among Chinese travellers.

"In the last few weeks, as things were opening up, there's definitely a lot of demand for travel," said Leeck. "We are hoping that we will be welcoming people very shortly."

Nancy Small, CEO of Tourism Richmond, said the city's hospitality industry had been missing Chinese tourists a lot. 

"So we are very excited to think about a future state where Chinese visitors will come back to Richmond because Richmond is very well known in certain pockets of China and people feel very at home here when they come,” said Small. 

But there is caution from some in the travel industry. 

Charles Chang, general manager of Formosa Travel Ltd. in Vancouver, said in Mandarin that it would take time for the industry to recover since flight frequency from Canada to China remained low.

"If the number of flights from China to Canada isn't enough, the tourist numbers won’t be picking up,” said Chang, whose company specializes in the Chinese market.

Chang said rapidly changing COVID policies in China “create uncertainties,” while high hotel costs in Vancouver during summer would also deter some tourists.

The British Columbia Aviation Council reported in February 2020, just before the pandemic erupted, that there were more flights between China and Vancouver International Airport than any other airport in North America.

A statement from the Vancouver Airport Authority said that in 2019, there were 75 flights a week arriving to the airport from Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan. 

That plummeted during the pandemic, and last year there were between six and 16 flights per week.

The authority said it's expecting "approximately" 34 flights a week during the Chinese New Year period.

Dave Frank, executive director of the aviation council, said he expected it to take six to nine months before flights from China fully recovered.

Small, with Tourism Richmond, agreed that the Chinese travel resurgence wouldn't happen immediately.

She cited the need to revive the "the mindset of wanting to travel," compliance with various ongoing regulations and flight availability.

"So, all of those things combined will mean it's not an overnight, it is not a flip of a switch. But when that market starts to come back, we will be ready to welcome them as we always have," said Small, adding that she expected it would take at least six months. 

At Vancouver's airport last week, tourist Penny Tao was among the arrivals getting off a flight from Hong Kong.

She said she couldn't wait to tour Vancouver with her best friend, who lives in B.C. 

"We haven't seen each other for twenty years," said Tao. "We don’t have anything planned yet, but I will definitely spend months here exploring the city." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press