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Has tourism become a form of ‘Soft Power’ for the Chinese?

by on April 1, 2014

Recent studies regarding Chinese Diplomacy have suggested that the Chinese government uses tourism as a ‘form of soft diplomacy in its dealings with other countries.’[1] Such power is exerted by influencing the ‘development of outbound tourism’[2], linking tourism with political agenda. The following post will outline how and why tourism is linked with the Chinese political agenda and what effect such policy has had over the rest of the world. It will then look at the possible outcomes if Chinese tourism is to continue growing at such a rapid pace. It will also challenge the idea that tourism has become a form of ‘soft power’ for the Chinese, suggesting tourism has become a hard power.

How and why?

In today’s globalised world, the influx of tourism on many states is becoming more and more important economically. With China having an estimated population of 1.3 Billion people, the significance of Chinese tourism can have a massive effect upon countries which the Chinese tourist choses to vacate to.

Dr Tse of the school of Hotel and Tourism Management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University outlines that the Chinese government “controls its tourism through its Approved Destination Scheme (ADS)”[3]. “This policy allows overseas pleasure travel by its citizens in tightly controlled groups and only to countries (and territories approved by the government”[4]

With 70 million Chinese travellers in 2011 spending a staggering $65 billion (estimate in US dollars)[5], it is unsurprising that the Chinese are using such power to court political and diplomatic favour.

Reportedly China only grants a country ADS approval status after a series of negotiations. This argument was proven correct when “China granted ADS to the South Pacific Island of Fiji in return for not recognising Taiwan diplomatically”[6]. Such example could, however, support the argument that China is using its outwards tourism as a form of hard power, not soft power.

Figure 1) Hard and soft power according to Joseph Nye[7]

Type of Power Behavior Sources Examples
Soft Attract & Co-opt Inherent qualitiesCommunications CharismaPersuasion, example
Hard Threaten & Induce Threats, intimidationPayments & Rewards Hire, Fire, DemotePromotions,Compensations


The table above demonstrates the differences between what is known as hard and soft power. Chinese tourism is used as a threat in the case of Fiji not recognising Taiwan, which suggests hard rather than soft power. The bargaining between China and Fiji cannot be viewed as attractive behaviour, irradiating the soft power argument. However, it could be argued that the lucrative effect Chinese tourists would have had on the economy in Fiji resulted in Fiji not recognising Taiwan, showing Chinese tourism to have a very persuasive effect.

It is not surprising that the Chinese government can get away with using tourism as a diplomatic tool, as it has been suggested that to neighbouring destinations such as the Maldives, Chinese tourism is slowly becoming one of the most important sources of income for locals. The influx of Chinese Tourists to the Maldives has evidently had a positive effect upon country economically and culturally. This view is echoed in the short clip below;

With Chinese tourism creating money and jobs it is evident why countries would want to stay allies with the Chinese government.

What next?

With Chinese outbound tourism almost doubling in the last ten years and the Chinese middle class roughly the same size if not larger than the entire population of the United States, it is hard to summarise what may be next in terms of Chinese tourist diplomacy. As a relatively new concept, more research is needed in the field to come up with adequate conclusions of how successful Chinese tourist diplomacy is.

However, what we can state is that Chinese tourism is going to grow considerably over the impending decade with statistics showing that “by 2020, 100 million global travellers will be from China, according to the Nations world tourism organisation[8], providing 14% of the world’s tourism revenue. This growth will have a big effect upon Chinese tourist policy, it will be interesting to see how the policy will change, if at all, and what changes this will make to the soft power the Chinese already hold.


[1] Ngan, P. (2014), “ PolyU Study Finds Chinese Outbound Tourism a Form Of Diplomacy”, [Online], Available at: [Accessed March 2014]

[2] Ngan, P. (2014), “ PolyU Study Finds Chinese Outbound Tourism a Form Of Diplomacy”, [Online], Available at: [Accessed March 2014]

[3] Ngan, P. (2014), “ PolyU Study Finds Chinese Outbound Tourism a Form Of Diplomacy”, [Online], Available at: [Accessed March 2014]


[4] Artia, S., “How China’s Approved Destination Status Policy Spurs and Hinders Chinese Travel Abroad”, University of Hawai’i and Manoa Department of Economics Working Paper Series, [Online], Available at: [Accessed March 2014]

[5] A China Travel Trends Production (2012), “The Essential China Travel Trends 2012”, [Online], Available at: [Accessed March 2014]

[6] A China Travel Trends Production (2012), “The Essential China Travel Trends 2012”, [Online], Available at: [Accessed March 2014]

[7]Nye, J (2006), Soft Power, Hard Power and Leadership [Online] Available at: [Accessed March 2014]

[8]A China Travel Trends Production (2012), “The Essential China Travel Trends 2012”, [Online], Available at: [Accessed March 2014]



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  1. This is an interesting article and highlights another aspect of China’s approach of influencing countries by intertwining bilateral relations with seemingly unrelated methods, in this case through tourism. This is correctly described as soft diplomatic power and is something the Chinese have become experts over the previous decades. Instead of projecting hard power such as Russian in Crimea, they have been seeking greater influence by working within the international framework of law and order. The article also showed me that China is primarily concerned with extracting immediate benefit from receptive countries at the expense of being lowered in terms of prestige in the eyes of others.
    The connection between diplomacy and tourism is in no doubt going to become stronger based on the Chinese tourism projections provided in the article. Whereas previously Chinese government would go into countries such as those in Africa and build infrastructure in return for resources, it may be able to scale back these types of commitment through diplomacy and tourism.

  2. lir0131 permalink

    According to Joseph S. Nye’s “Soft Power” definition:’ it is an ability to co-opt people, to achieve political ends through attraction rather than coercion or payment’. It can be said that soft power mainly is power of attraction. And as we can see China successfully uses this tool. As I have mentioned in one of my blogs, China has a long history of public and soft power. When China started to open to the world in the 1970s, we saw the advent of Ping-Pong diplomacy, then Panda diplomacy, followed by Terracotta diplomacy. All these events are well considered tools to assist and promote China’s prosperous image. And, of course, this tactics only helps to boost China’s tourism industry and attract more attention to Chinese culture, language, etc…
    Overall, I absolutely agree with maj; this is an interesting article, describing China’s successful soft power diplomacy and how it can be achieved through tourism industry. You include some interesting statistics, to which I can only add that by 2020 not only ‘100 million global travelers will be from China, providing 14 percent of the world’s tourism revenue’, as you have mentioned, but China also will become the largest travel destination by this year according to a recent prediction from the WTO.

  3. Thank you. This is a fascinating case, of which I was unaware. Usually the focus on tourism in public diplomacy and nation branding is attracting tourists to your own country, not sending your citizens abroad. The latter is usually seen as a form of citizen diplomacy at most (if good deeds are undertaken while abroad), but in this case the Chinese state is clearly orchestrating the whole operation, which makes it more a case of public diplomacy.

    However, I’m not so sure this is a case of soft power. It seems more like an element of hard power to me, with Fiji being offered tangible incentives to end its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. Carrots and sticks are the defining features of hard power. Soft power would only kick in if the Chinese tourists were so charming, cultured and well behaved as to promote better impressions of their country in the places they visit. That would be the power of attraction, but that doesn’t seem to be your argument.

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