(Xinhua/Cheong Kam Ka)

Welcome Back

Apart from the possible interruptions caused by the COVID outbreaks, analysts expect the return of Mainland Chinese travellers in tour groups will be a testament to the tourism appeal of the city. However it might not significantly bolster the local tourism and gaming landscape in the beginning.


Following a three-year hiatus, the city is now getting ready to welcome tour groups from Mainland China again amid the continuously looming fears of coronavirus outbreaks. Even if the restart can happen smoothly, it is expected that these tour groups might not serve as a huge booster to the local tourism market and gaming industry in the beginning stage.

Since the announcement in late September that tour groups from Shanghai and the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu and Zhejiang would be permitted to return to Macau in November, stakeholders in the city have been waiting for when this can take place. The authorities from the mainland and Macau, however, have not disclosed an exact timeline yet, only with some travel agencies across the border promoting and marketing that tour groups would start again on November 13.

“We’ve been working closely with our counterparts in the mainland… just waiting for the official permission from the [Chinese] Ministry of Culture and Tourism,” says Andy Wu Keng Kuong, chairman of the Travel Industry Council of Macau.

Due to the pause of tour groups from the mainland and elsewhere since the start of COVID-19 in early 2020, many local tourist guides and coach drivers have opted for other career paths. But with the expected start of package tours from the mainland again, over 300 tourist guides and drivers have been back. “This tally is enough in the beginning stage because we don’t expect there will be many tour groups to Macau right after the resumption,” the chairman says. “There might be about 200 tour groups in the beginning stage, involving thousands of mainland tourists.”

(Xinhua/Cheong Kam Ka)

COVID fears

However, the resumption might be in jeopardy due to the recent surge of coronavirus cases in the nearby Guangdong province and in the city. Following the end of the worst COVID community outbreak this summer, Macau has reported a number of fresh infections in the community since late October.

“The sporadic cases will not affect the resumption of tour groups or the willingness of mainlanders to visit Macau, because there have also been infections across the mainland. It will be fine as long as there are no large-scale outbreaks,” Mr Wu says. “We can’t be too worried about it.”

As part of the anti-epidemic measures, the Macau authorities issued a new guideline with regards to the mainland package tours, which mandates, for instance, that all the tourist guides and related staff must take a nucleic acid test once a week while all travellers in the tour groups must undergo daily temperature screening in Macau. The administration has also indicated there is a circuit breaker mechanism—meaning the package tours to Macau would be halted should there be a COVID outbreak—but it has so far not advanced any details.

Visitor arrivals to Macau totalled over 4.36 million in the first nine months of 2022—or nearly 16,000 travellers a day—declining by 24.2 per cent year-on-year and only translating to 14.4 per cent of the pre-pandemic volume, the latest official figures show. The visitor volume of the city has been supported solely by mainland tourists—who travel now with business visas or under the Individual Visit Scheme (IVS)—as Macau has only maintained largely quarantine-free travel arrangements with the mainland.

Sole destination

From the perspective of Wong Fai, president of Macau Leisure Tourism Services Innovation Association, the local industry, particularly travel agencies, has longed for the resumption of travel groups since the onset of the global pandemic.

Compared with the itineraries that focused on shopping and major tourist sites, the industry veteran says the itineraries of the upcoming tour groups provide a more diverse range of local tourism offerings. For instance, local travel agencies have already devised various routes in the past three years for local residents to experience a different side of Macau given the absence of package tour visitors, some of which would be incorporated into the itineraries for mainland tours. “The itineraries will be more exquisite and in-depth,” Mr Wong remarks.

“Before the pandemic, the mainland package tours usually had both Hong Kong and Macau as the destinations in one go, and the mainlanders didn’t spend much time in Macau,” he continues. Nonetheless, implementing a strict zero-COVID strategy, the mainland requires all arrivals from non-Macau destinations, including Hong Kong, must undergo mandatory quarantine.

“Now we will only have Macau as the sole destination, so we have to wait and see the market reception. It’s definitely a test for the tourism offerings of Macau,” he says.

Before the COVID-19 hit, the number of tour group travellers to Macau totalled about 8.33 million in 2019, and among them, the tally of travellers in tour groups from the mainland amounted to more than 6.44 million. These two figures represented about 21 per cent and 16 per cent respectively, of the total visitation of more than 39 million to the city in the same year.

Doubling

In the September announcement of the restoration of package tours from the mainland to Macau, as well as the resumption of the issuance of electronic visas for mainlanders to the city, Macau Chief Executive Ho Ia Seng said it is expected these two measures, with the support of the central government, could at least double Macau’s daily visitation volume to 40,000 travellers a day.

According to mainland media reports, the popularity of Macau on popular travel sales and tips platforms across the border have increased in recent weeks — Tongcheng Travel recorded a rise of 237 per cent about searches of Macau in late October alongside an increase of 160 per cent about Macau hotels, and similar results were also reported in another tourism platform Mafengwo, which saw an upsurge of 330 per cent about Macau on its search engines. The reports explained that the rush was due to the fact that the tour groups to Macau would also be the first tour groups to non-mainland destinations for mainlanders in three years.

While there is no exact date yet for the restart of package tours, the Chinese National Immigration Administration confirmed the authorities have started processing the applications of e-visas for the mainlanders to travel to Macau since 1 November, including individual travel or tour group visas. The decision was made in light of “the stable COVID situation in Macau and the rising demand of the mainlanders to visit Macau”, the immigration administration said, adding this measure strives a balance between “the control of the pandemic situation and socioeconomic development” and “supports the economic diversifications of Macau”.

“We believe the resumption of e-visa and group tours should alleviate friction for a Macau trip, as well as signal to many that it’s okay to visit Macau, in turn boosting demand into the year-end holidays and 2023. Finally, we feel we can talk about a return to normalcy,” brokerage JP Morgan Securities said in a recent research note.

Lower consumption power

Zeng Zhonglu, a professor at the Centre for Gaming and Tourism Studies of the Macau Polytechnic University, says it remains to be seen to which degree these measures can bolster the local tourism and gaming segment. “As the IVS scheme is already applicable in these four provinces and Shanghai, where the first tour groups will come from, it is expected the consumption power of these tour travellers might not be too high,” the scholar says.

“When tour groups from places where the IVS scheme is not applicable are permitted to come, this will be a bigger boost to the local tourism and gaming industry,” he adds. Due to the low visitation volume and Beijing’s crackdown on cross-border gambling, Macau’s gaming revenue plunged 53.1 per cent year-on-year to just MOP31.82 billion (US$4 billion) in the first three quarters of 2022.

Nonetheless, these measures are still beneficial to the recovery of the Macau economy. “As long as the COVID-19 situation is under control, these could help improve the visitor arrivals to Macau,” Professor Zeng adds.


Significance of Mainland Tour Groups Before COVID-19

Year Number of Tour Group Travellers from Mainland China Share of Total Visitor Arrivals to Macau
2019 6.21 million 15.8%
2018 6.83 million 19.1%
2017 6.29 million 19.3%
2016 5.55 million 17.9%
2015 7 million 22.8%
2014 7.32 million 23.2%

Source: Statistics and Census Service of Macau (DSEC)