By Karen Kwok and Edward Hadas
LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Marco Polo brought the idea of paper money to Venice when he returned from China towards the end of the 13th century. Now, it’s Chinese tourists that are bringing money into all of Italy. The number of visitors from the Middle Kingdom rose 31% between May and August compared with a year before, according to information from travel data analysts ForwardKeys. That was the fastest growth of any country out of Asia. The sudden popularity has less to do with a rash of interest in Renaissance painting and more to do with politics.
In March, Italy signed a memorandum of understanding on infrastructure investments with China. That made it the first Group of Seven major developed economy to join China’s Belt and Road initiative. This pet project of China’s leader Xi Jinping is supposed to be a 21st century version of the Silk Road on which Polo travelled.
Along with deals in energy and agriculture, the two countries declared 2020 a year of Sino-Italian culture and tourism. More direct flights from China to Italy and faster approval for Italian visas add to the appeal.
The cash-strapped Italian government could use the help. Tourism already accounts for 13% of Italy’s GDP, and the coachloads of Chinese tourists will add to the haul. There are also many more Chinese who can come. Italy currently takes only a 1.9% share of the Chinese outbound travel market, according to ForwardKeys data. Chinese foreign visitors are expected to spend $315 billion in 2020, consultant McKinsey forecasts. That comes to 160 million foreign trips at an average cost of just below $2,000 per journey.
The pleasures of travel are not merely private. Rather, tourists are a tool in the Chinese government’s pursuit of soft power. The ruling Communist Party supports new friends and punishes what it considers to be disloyal behavior. Visits are down to Donald Trump’s hostile United States and restrictions are expected to hit numbers for troublesome Taiwan. Protest-infected Hong Kong is also likely to suffer.
Of course, Italians may come to resent mass Chinese tourism, even when the visitors come with fat wallets. There’s an easy way to stop the flow – do something that irritates the Chinese government.
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