The numbers of overseas visitors have declined since January, when levels of smog reached new heights.
Tourists have been put off by reports about smog and other problems, said Frano Ilic of travel agency Studiosus in Munich, Germany. He said the number of people booking trips to China through his company has fallen by 16 per cent this year.
“You are reading about smog. You are reading about political things,” said Mr Ilic. “All the news which is coming from China concerning the non-touristic things are bad, frankly speaking,”
China is the world’s third most popular destination for international travel after France and the United States. Weakness in visitor numbers could hurt government efforts to reduce reliance on trade-driven manufacturing by promoting service industries such as tourism. Foreign visitors are outnumbered by Chinese tourists but spend more.
The decline could be long-term if Beijing fails to make visible progress in dealing with pollution, experts say.
That China’s air and water are badly polluted following three decades of growth is not news. But January’s record-setting bout of smog received worldwide news coverage and was so bad that some long-term foreign residents left the country.
From January to June, the total number of foreign visitors, including business travelers and residents, entering China declined by five per cent to just under 13 million compared with the same period last year, according to the China National Tourism Administration. Overall, visitors from Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas all declined.
In Beijing, where major attractions include the Great Wall and the Imperial Palace, the drop is even more striking. The number of foreign tourists visiting the Chinese capital fell by 15 per cent in the first six months of the year to 1.9 million.
The China National Tourism Administration acknowledges a decline in foreign tourists to China as a whole, and in cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen, a prosperous port city in the southeast.
It blames the global economic slowdown and a stronger Chinese currency and says China’s tourism image has been hurt by the emergence of H7N9 bird flu, air pollution and dead pigs found floating in Shanghai’s main river.
Beijing’s official air quality reports show improvement over recent years.
But Steven Andrews, an environmental and legal consultant, said other data shows a decline.
An analysis of U.S. Embassy readings of smaller, more harmful airborne particles, show this year’s pollution is significantly worse than in the past three years, Mr Andrews said.
Beijing’s city government only started publicly releasing air quality data in January 2012 that measured PM2.5, or fine particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. They can enter deep into the lungs and can cause more damage. They are considered a more accurate reflection of air quality than other pollutants.
According to Mr Andrews’ calculations, the average PM2.5 reading in the first half of 2013 was about 118 micrograms per cubic meter, compared with 95 last year and 89 in 2011. “In other words, so far this year the air pollution is about 25 per cent worse than the first half of last year,” he said.
Total numbers of foreigners to Beijing rose in January by 13 percent compared with a year earlier. But following news reports of January’s smog, they dropped in February by 37 per cent compared with February 2012.
The Chinese government has announced ambitious anti-pollution measures but people whose jobs depend on foreign tourists aren’t hopeful.
The sales manager of the Cuiming Garden Hotel, near Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, said guest numbers are down. She said the next three months are usually a busy period but if the slump continues, the hotel might cut prices.