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Friday, July 25, 2014, 10:55

Crash draws mixed reactions

By QIU BO in Beijing

Chinese travel agencies are reporting mixed results in outbound travel to Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia, following the crash of Malaysia Airline flight MH17 in Ukraine on July 17.

China Youth Travel Service (CYTS), one of the country’s largest travel agencies, expects to suffer a 30 to 40 percent drop in its Southeast Asian business this summer, partly due to the Malaysia Airlines misfortunes.

While it is difficult to forecast for the whole year, this summer does not look good compared to the same period in previous years, says Ge Lei, the agency’s spokesman.

“A variety of reasons triggered the drop,” he says. “Not only (the) Malaysia Airlines incidents, but also the security situation in Vietnam and political factors in Philippines, which all drove travelers away.”

However, while CYTS received the cold shoulder, tourists showed their enthusiasm for similar routes offered by Ctrip, an online travel agency.

“We saw a rise in Chinese travelers in Thailand, thanks to waiving of visa fees,” says Yan Xin, a public affairs manager at Ctrip. In the first half of July, the agency received nearly 10,000 travel applications, a significant increase over the same period last year, according to Yan.

“That’s why we did not adjust our business strategy in Southeast Asia after the crash,” he says. “The number of applicants is expected to keep growing in the next couple of months.”

The Thai government this month announced it was scrapping the 230 yuan ($37) visa fee for tourists from the Chinese mainland from August to October. The initiative aims to attract more travelers from China, Thailand’s largest source of inbound tourists.

“For those who like to spend their vacation on islands, Malaysia has never been their top choice and as an alternative, Thailand is more cost-effective,” says Gao Bei, brand director of Lvmama, another online agency.

Meanwhile, while the Malaysia Airlines MH17 flight crash in Ukraine has caused losses to Malaysian tourism in the China market, the damage has so far been limited.

Some Chinese passengers are choosing other carriers. Travel agencies in the eastern city of Hangzhou are barely selling tickets for Malaysia Airlines, according to the city-based Today Morning Express.

The number of travelers from Shanghai is also decreasing, the report said.

CITS, a State-owned travel agency, ceased cooperation with Malaysia Airlines in March and never restarted. “Malaysia Airlines is a sensitive topic in the company and we don’t have further comment,” says Meng Qingfu, the agency’s spokesman.

CYTS, however, resumed cooperation with Malaysia Airlines a few months after suspending it due to pressure from clients.

More than 50 percent of its clients who had booked to travel on Malaysia Airlines had demanded refunds after the disappearance of flight MH370, which was carrying mainly Chinese travelers.

But the tide seems to have turned. Ge from CYTS reports that there is no obvious evidence showing the number of Chinese travelers dropped in the immediate aftermath of the most recent disaster.

“We are rational and we hope to pull through this together with our partner this time,” he says “No evidence shows that Malaysia Airlines should take the blame (for the shooting down of MH17).”

Ctrip spokesman Yan has a similar view. “Our business in Malaysia is not much influenced by the incident and related travel products are in normal sales.”

Liu Deqian, vice-director of the tourism research center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes that the number of tourists will not fall due to the crash. “People are aware that the crash is only a small probability event,” he says.

However, not all travelers are so confident. Yang Yaqing, a 31-year-old human resource manager in Beijing, tells China Daily Asia Weekly that she canceled her family’s trip to Malaysia planned for October.

“Even if I’m over the psychological effect, my mother won’t allow me to take my son,” she says.

Wang Yanyong, director of the Tourism Development and Planning Research Center of Beijing Jiaotong University, says that it is human nature to panic when such shocking incidents occur. But he believes that the travel industry will be able to adapt.

Other passengers take a broader view of the crash.

“We cannot conclude that it’s not safe to take Malaysia Airlines,” says Zhao Xia, a 34-year-old accountant who is going ahead with her plan to take a Malaysia Airlines flight in August.

Malaysia had set a target of attracting two million Chinese tourists in 2014. In 2013, Chinese tourists contributed 6 percent of annual tourism revenue, equal to 0.4 percent of the GDP of Malaysia, according to a research report from financial management company Merrill Lynch.

“I don’t think the impact from the crash in tourism will last long,” says Zhang Lingyun, deputy dean of the Tourism Institute of Beijing Union University.

“Malaysia as a travel destination is absolutely safe,” he says. “The airline itself has been among the world’s top services for a long time.”


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