Photo: AFP

Chinese tourism in the United States was already declining for the first time in fifteen years – in freefall in some places – and Beijing is now pouring salt in that wound.

On Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism issued a travel alert warning tourists about the dangers of visiting the US.

The advisory urged travelers to “fully assess the risks” of stepping foot on US soil, “noting the frequent occurrence of shootings, robberies and theft,” per China’s official Xinhua News Agency. It also stressed the high cost of medical care in the destination.

The advisory tapped into a popular perception in China of safety concerns in the US, driven by statistics that show substantially higher violent crime rates there than at home. The prevalence of guns and the frequent occurrence of high-profile mass shootings has also contributed to fears.

In 2018, the number of visitors from China to the US fell for the first time since 2003, according to data released just last week by the National Travel and Tourism Office. While China was only the fifth-largest contributor of international travelers, its visitors were the biggest spender.

That spending, however, includes education, a source of international cash that is also likely to take a hit. Some states have already reported substantial declines in international student enrollment, of which Chinese students account for the majority.

The decline has been spurred on by developments in both countries, with political leaders in Washington urging higher-education institutions to limit visas for Chinese researchers due to national security concerns. At the same time, options for studying inside China have improved as overseas trained faculty return.

China’s Ministry of Education warned on Monday of the newly hostile environment for Chinese students, asking prospective students to “raise their risk assessment.”

The prospect of leveraging tourism as one bargaining chip in the trade fight with Washington is not unprecedented, and US$36.4 billion of Chinese visitor spending hangs in the balance.

Following the deployment of a US missile defense system in South Korea, Beijing pressured Seoul to remove the missiles by halting travel groups to the country.

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