Monkey business: As China tourists tighten belt, retailers face unhappy New Year

Tue Feb 9, 2016 8:08am EST
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By Jarni Blakkarly and Stella Tsang

SYDNEY/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Watching a lone browser in his Sydney Chinatown shop, Bing Chen is worried business is being squeezed this Lunar New Year by what's ailing the world economy at large - the weakest Chinese economy in 25 years.

In years gone by, Chen would stay open until the wee hours, selling kangaroo skins and Australian wool to crowds of Chinese tourists. But as the Year of the Monkey begins, stores like Chen's are seeing a drop in trade with newly budget-conscious Chinese either staying home or spending less.

"Our customers have halved," said Chen, standing by neatly stacked shelves at his Sydney store. "We had to work till 2am and there were still customers buying things but not any more."

While record numbers of Chinese are traveling outside the mainland - 109 million last year, according to researcher GfK - Chen's fears echo data showing growth in tourist spending is dropping off quickly.

The China National Tourism Administration in December forecast 2015 outbound tourist spending at $194 billion, according to state media. That equates to per tourist spending growth of just 1.5 percent, compared with a 16.5 percent rise the previous year.

China's slowing growth is also showing up in weaker tourism spending much closer to home than Sydney.

In Hong Kong, visits from the mainland were down 15.5 percent in December, compared to the year earlier, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Streets in Sheung Wan district, lined with stores selling dried seafood and various tonics, are quiet rather than bustling. Shop owner Lin Ying Jui says trade for his abalone, edible birds nests and natural medicines is the worst in decades.   Continued...

Australian products are displayed for sale in a store in Sydney, Australia, January 27, 2016. Picture taken January 27, 2016.    REUTERS/Jarni Blakkarly