Tension between China and Australia could deliver a devastating blow to Queensland’s tourism industry when international borders reopen, a tourism report warns.
Last year, Chinese tourists were the biggest spenders in Queensland, splashing $1.3 billion and accounting for about a quarter of total international expenditure, the Tourism and Events Queensland annual report reveals.
But Australian diplomatic relations with China have deteriorated rapidly throughout the year as Queensland’s tourism industry begins to pull itself out of a coronavirus-induced coma.
“Rising geopolitical tensions with China could prove challenging when Australia’s borders reopen and potentially affect both the education and leisure travel segments to Queensland,” the report reads.
The report, which contains data from July 2019 to March 2020, does not detail the full economic impact the coronavirus has had on tourism but discusses the “sharp declines” in visitation from China following the initial travel ban.
Griffith University’s Asia Institute director, Caitlin Byrne, said the relationship between China and Australia had been dogged by geopolitical and strategic tension but the countries bonded over strong trade relations.
Strain on the relationship threatens some of Queensland’s biggest industries, including tourism, education and agriculture.
“A lot of issues are being amplified in the shadow of COVID-19 and the state of the Australia-China relationship, well, there is no doubt we are at a low ebb,” Professor Byrne said.
“Just like any relationship, you have to work at it and we need to invest more effort in understanding China and some of the shifts that are under way in the Chinese landscape and what that means for us.
“We are dealing with a China that is changing and a China that is increasingly asserting its growing power and that does bring some challenge into the relationship.”
China suspended exports from four Australian beef abattoirs in May, three in Queensland and one in NSW, for not meeting labelling requirements.
The same month China’s Commerce Ministry announced extreme tariffs on all barley grain imported from Australia, which followed a push from Prime Minister Scott Morrison for an independent coronavirus inquiry.
The relationship soured further in June when Chinese authorities warned its students not to study in Australia.
At the time, former University of Queensland vice-chancellor Peter Høj said “a co-operative approach” between government and institutions was needed to “assist in re-establishing a perception that Queensland is a welcoming and safe destination for all visitors from China and Asia more generally”.
Together, UQ and the Queensland University of Technology educate more than 28,000 international students from 134 countries each year.
Course fees from foreign students, mostly Chinese, make up about 30 per cent of revenue at UQ and 20 per cent at QUT.
An Australian parliamentary inquiry was announced in August to probe whether foreign actors were encroaching on freedom of speech at Australian universities. It followed high-profile clashes between UQ students during protests about Chinese influence.
Tension escalated again in September when Australian researchers were banned from entering China and Australian journalists Mike Smith and Bill Birtles left the communist country after being questioned by state security.
The move was believed to be a retaliation to the questioning of four Chinese journalists by Australia’s counter-espionage agency ASIO and the cancelling of two academics visas.
Professor Byrne said as both countries bounced from issue to issue, it would be imperative to focus on the big picture and how that would affect Australian industries.
“We don’t necessarily see the communication channels open at the very highest levels of our diplomatic and political relationships and that is problematic for us,” she said.
“It is important to take a step back and think what the end goal of the relationship is.
“But I suspect we are in for a long haul on this and I certainly don’t think there is a single easy way through.”