Sydney Airport traffic data also points to a drop in Chinese visitor numbers over the last three months after a spike in January, while UBS said Australia was slipping in the ranks as a “preferred” destination in favour of cheaper Asian destinations such as Cambodia and Indonesia.
Sydney Airport’s monthly travel statistics recorded a 0.2 per cent year-on-year increase in visitors from China in April, a 12.7 per cent fall in March, a 4.6 per cent decline in February and a 20 per cent increase in January. The peak season for Chinese visitors to Australia is Chinese New Year, which was in early February this year.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts said Chinese outbound seat locations to Australia fell 3 per cent in April, 5 per cent in March and 1 per cent in February. This compared with a 53 per cent jump in Cambodia and a 23 per cent hike for Indonesia.
While Chinese visitor numbers remain near record levels, investors said a slowdown was worrying given the huge contribution tourism makes to the Australian economy and previous assumptions the boom would continue for many years.
“Conversations in Australia on China naturally gravitate towards resources, but tourism should now be in pretty sharp focus,” said Dion Hershan, head of Australian equities at Yarra Capital Management.
“Australia remains a hugely appealing destination for Chinese tourists who flock to our shores, enjoying our diverse natural beauty, amazing food and wine and varied cultural experiences. This is reflected in the growing levels of repeat visitation we are seeing from China,” Mr Birmingham said.
The rates of growth, which peaked in 2015, are slowing, although numbers remain robust compared with the United States, where absolute numbers have declined. Tourism Australia said there was a 2.4 per cent increase in visitors, to 1.44 million, for the year ending March 2019. Chinese visitors also spent more than $11.7 billion during that period, up 13 per cent.
The Australian government in March launched an advertising campaign in China targeting the country’s growing independent traveller market, in which visitors typically spend more and make repeat visits.
One fear is that Australia could get caught up in the Sino-US trade war. China‘s Culture and Tourism Ministry and its Foreign Ministry both issued warnings last week advising its citizens planning to travel to the United States to safeguard against “risks”. China has not issued a similar travel warning for Australia, but some travel agents said political tension between the two countries was reflected in bookings.
Mr Wang also said travel packages to any destination above 20 000 yuan ($4150) were not selling well this year due to the slowing Chinese economy, but he said declining sales to Australia were different.
However, another travel agent specialising in trips to Australia said bookings were flat for this year but that was because of the slowing Chinese economy and weak currency rather than political factors.
While China never officially admits it cuts off its tourists and students for political reasons, Beijing has a history of telling its tourists to stay away from South Korea, Taiwan and Macau when it suits. This has not happened to Australia so far but the state-controlled media last year ran frequent stories about deadly animals and crime in Australia when the diplomatic relationship hit a low.
ABS data showed half, or 775,275, of the 1.4 million short-term Chinese arrivals for the year to March 2019 said they were entering the country for a holiday. This compared to 790,077 a year earlier. It said 345,278 were in Australia for education and 269,211 were visiting friends and relatives.