More visitors to Vietnam come from China than from any other country.
The number of Chinese tourists going to Vietnam reached 250,000 last month. Vietnamese state media say that is a 68 percent increase from the number in January 2016.
The popularity of Vietnam with Chinese tourists is somewhat of a surprise.
The two countries are involved in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. They also have a long history of disputes and distrust.
Chinese tourists have influenced the economies of places like Hong Kong and Taiwan over the past 10 years.
Fredrick Burke is a partner in Baker & McKenzie, a law office in Ho Chi Minh City. He says, while there are disagreements between the countries, Chinese like to visit Vietnam.
“There are some underlying tensions over the East Sea or the South China Sea, but nevertheless Vietnam is a place the Chinese feel comfortable going,” he said.
Tourism: a way to ease tensions
Relations have not always been warm. China and Vietnam have argued for years over two groups of small islands and rocks in the South China Sea. In 1979, the two sides fought a brief war.
The number of Chinese visitors fell in 2014 when China’s state oil company set up an oil rig in disputed waters. The move resulted in deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.
But since then, the number of Chinese tourists has increased. About 2.2 million Chinese went to Vietnam last year.
Some observers say increasing tourism is a way for Vietnam to be more than a manufacturing center.
Louie Nguyen started the news website VietnamAdvisors. He says the country is seeking to develop new industries.
“You can see that in the increase in the startup initiatives in terms of tech startups. Even the film business, the latest King Kong was made in Vietnam. So there (are) various initiatives to try to move away from manufacturing. Tourism is one of them.”
Vietnam still depends on manufacturing to keep its economy strong. However, Fredrick Burke says tourism provided 6.6 percent of Vietnam’s economic activity last year. He says one in eight jobs is tied to services such as hotels, travel and food.
China and Vietnam share a border and flights between the two are short, especially from southern China.
Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand were first countries in Southeast Asia to become popular tourist destinations. But the number of Chinese visitors to Malaysia has dropped since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370.
Singapore reported a drop in Chinese tourists in both 2013 and 2014 before the country made it easier for Chinese families to travel there.
Thailand has remained a popular place for Chinese tourists, with a 20 percent increase in visitors in 2015.
Chinese tourist destinations can change
Tourists from China have influenced other parts of Asia.
China eased restrictions on travel to Hong Kong from mainland China in 2003. In 2015, the territory received nearly 46 million mainland Chinese.
Also, millions of Chinese also have visited the island of Taiwan since 2008. But Taiwanese officials have reported a 30- to 40-percent drop in Chinese travel groups since the swearing-in of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen last May. Tsai opposes closer ties with China, which considers the island a rebel province.
Taiwan’s hotels and bus operators have been hurt by the decrease in tourists.
In the case of Vietnam, Fredrick Burke says China does not appear to be pushing tourism for any long-term gain. But Chinese travel agencies could cut back their services if relations get tense.
In Hong Kong, visits from the mainland dropped three percent during 2015. That year, thousands of young people demonstrated in what became known as the Umbrella Movement. Protesters were angry about Chinese government efforts to influence in the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive.
Jonathan Spangler is director of the South China Sea Think Tank, a research group based in Taiwan. He says Vietnam understands the risk of a sudden decrease in tourism.
“Beijing has been known to limit outbound tourism as a political tool, but the Vietnamese government understands that such risks are only a small part of its economic relations with China and broader diplomatic and political interests,” he said.
I’m Mario Ritter.
Ralph Jennings reported this story for VOANews.com. Mario Ritter adapted the report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
tourists – n. people who travel to another country for pleasure
initiative – n. a plan or program to solve a problem or start a business
startup –n. a business that has just opened or started
destinations – n. a place that a person or group is going or is being sent