DestinationsFrom major infrastructure projects to F&B scenes, experts say there’s a “new energy” in the region.

Bridges, bike tracks and bars, Southeast Asia is ready for Chinese travellers

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Brunei’s Temburong Bridge opened in 2020, giving travellers more self-drive options.
Brunei’s Temburong Bridge opened in 2020, giving travellers more self-drive options. Photo Credit: GettyImages/Christina Chin

New estimates from the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute see a “strong wave” of Chinese tourists beginning to travel to international destinations in 2023, with a lot of these trips to those within the region — such as South-east Asian nations.

In the decade prior to the pandemic, Southeast Asia experienced more than a two-fold increase in Chinese visitors. In 2019, the 10 countries that make up the region collectively received 143 million inbound tourists, of which 32.3 million were Chinese.

As the world anticipates the return of the largest tourism market, South-east Asia is set to build on this pre-pandemic momentum and emerge as a major destination for Chinese travellers.

At the recent Guangzhou International Travel Fair Chinese Outbound Tourism Conference, Gary Bowerman, director of travel and tourism consultancy Check-in Asia, outlined major infrastructure developments, new F&B scenes and homegrown trends across the region that will welcome Chinese travellers upon their return.

“During the pandemic, not everything stopped. There was a lot of development, and I think visitors coming back into the region will notice that things have changed. There is an exciting new energy in travel and tourism in the region,” said Bowerman, who is also an advisor for the Centre of Chinese Studies in Madrid, and author of The New Chinese Traveller: Business Opportunities from the Chinese Travel Revolution.

In terms of major infrastructure projects, Bowerman highlighted the China-Laos railway, which opened at the end of 2021, and Brunei’s Temburong Bridge, which opened in 2020.

Connecting Temburong to the Brunei-Muara district across the Brunei Bay, at 30 kilometres it’s Southeast Asia’s longest. Bowerman also noted that in Vietnam, adventurous travellers can now cross the world’s longest pedestrian bridge.

On a smaller scale, Singapore has new appeal for tourists with a penchant for pedal power: a 500 kilometre network of cycle routes that take in many of the country’s natural highlights, which Bowerman said didn’t receive as much interest prior to the pandemic.

Historically popular with Chinese tourists in countries such as Australia, the UK, New Zealand and the US, self-drive tourism saw a sharp rise during the pandemic, but it hasn’t really been promoted much by South-east Asian destinations, said Bowerman. This is about to change.

“There are huge numbers of roadways, freeways, and coastal highways being built across the region, offering new opportunities for travellers who want to create their own itineraries.”

Over the next decade, Thailand will build a network of self-drive tourism routes in the Gulf of Thailand, the Mekong River region, and in the Khao Yai Mountains, while Vietnam and Cambodia are also making self-drive tourism more accessible.

For Chinese travellers more interested in dining than the great outdoors, the next edition of Thailand’s Michelin guide, forthcoming in 2023, will for the first time feature restaurants serving unique Isan cuisine in four north-eastern provinces. Meanwhile, in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, the city’s mixologists have spent the pandemic honing their craft to create a thriving boutique cocktail bar scene.

“Every single one of the 10 Southeast Asian countries is looking forward to the future when Chinese travellers become part of the travel landscape once again.”

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