Southeast Asia’s seafood market being reshaped by Chinese tourists

Published on
May 29, 2018

Chinese travelers looking for an inexpensive, seafood-focused vacation are settling on Thailand in larger and larger numbers. 

Thailand’s Tourism Ministry is projecting 38 million tourist visits this year – including 10 million from China. An estimated 1.2 million Chinese visited Thailand for the Chinese New Year holiday earlier this year.

Masses of Chinese tourists are now traveling abroad and the bulk of the first-time travelers in particular head for Southeast Asia, judging by official data. Thailand was ranked the most popular destination for Chinese tourists in 2017, according to data compiled by Ctrip, a major online travel ticketing site in China. Other top destinations for Chinese tourists in 2017 were Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Malaysia placed sixth, followed by the Philippines, the United States, South Korea, and the Maldives.

Many of those visitors are so-called “seafood tourists,” according to China’s leading newspaper, the People’s Daily. A recent article suggests Thailand in particular has a large and growing reputation for being the cheapest destination for China’s seafood tourists. An online version of the article sparked a discussion among readers comparing restaurant prices in Bangkok and Pattaya with those in Beijing and Shanghai.

Higher prices at home are driving Chinese to consume seafood overseas. This trend is likely to continue, as Chinese consumers flee price-gouging in the domestic restaurant trade and scarce supply as China shuts down domestic fishing to conserve fishery stocks. 

In March 2018, there was a 7.11 percent year-on-year rise in seafood prices, based on a survey of 58 markets conducted by China’s Agriculture Ministry. Prices for seawater species rose by 6.5 percent to an average CNY 44.34 (USD 6.91, EUR 5.97) per kilogram. Average prices in the port city of Ningbo as of the end of April were up 10 percent year-on-year, with prices for staples like silver pomfret up by 20 percent to a record CNY 120 (USD 18.70, EUR 16.15) per kilogram, while prices for ribbonfish were up by 10 percent a year before. 

Seafood exporters – and conservationists – could do well to focus their attention on Thailand as a proxy market to target Chinese tourists headed to the country in ever greater numbers. According to a report published recently by the University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Marine Sciences in cooperation with ADM Capital Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Coral Triangle Program, popular wild-caught reef fish species could disappear in the coming decades, due to overfishing and environmental degradation. The Coral Triangle area refers to an area of great biodiversity spanning a large part of Southeast Asia. 

The impact of rising Chinese seafood consumption is likely having a direct impact on endangered species in Southeast Asia. Anyone who’s seen the price tags on wild grouper and wrasse in Beijing restaurants will appreciate what an incredibly profitable trade there is in live tropical reef fish. Prices for live coral grouper and wrasse in tanks in upmarket restaurants in Beijing range from USD 100 to 300 (EUR 86 to 259). That trade may now be about to switch to restaurants nearer to source, in Southeast Asia. 

The key to averting the collapse, according to the report, is first to police Hong Kong-registered vessels that illegally take live reef fish from Southeast Asia and then smuggle them via Hong Kong into mainland China. Some 60 percent of the fish brought into Hong Kong ends up in mainland China, according to the report, often smuggled over the border.

Hong Kong needs to change local rules that omit live fish imports from having to be recorded by the city’s Fish Marketing Organization, as currently, only “dead” or frozen imports are recorded. Recording live shipments would allow better tracking of illicit coral fish, the report said.

Yet the problem may be bigger than Hong Kong, whose one-time status as a mecca for mainland travelers has faded. Chinese tourists now travel more widely – in 2017, they made 150 million overseas visits and spent USD 115 billion (EUR 99.3 billion).

Seafood importers and vendors in Bangkok told SeafoodSource that Chinese tourism has been a driver of seafood consumption in recent years. Consumption by the world’s biggest source of tourists is concentrated in Southeast Asia, and that’s where much consumption – and education – needs to happen, especially as Chinese tourists and retirees become a major economic force in the region, according to the report.

Overseas travel is a barometer of social mobility for many Chinese. The government of Chinese President Xi Jinping wants China to continue climbing the economic ladder in the coming decades to reach what it terms a “high income status” and thus a “modern socialist country” by 2035 and a “rich and powerful socialist country” by 2050. Income growth is vital to China’s economic planners who want to avoid the so-called middle income trap whereby rapid economic growth is over before incomes are at a high level.

Many already-wealthy Chinese – the country’s largest consumers of seafood – are, however, traveling elsewhere in Asia – and staying beyond their holidays. Already, Chinese money is physically remaking large parts of Asia. A USD 100 billion (EUR 86.4 billion) “Forest City” real estate project in the Malaysian city of Johor has been popular with middle-class Chinese looking for a second home abroad. Similarly, a USD 1 billion (EUR 864 million) partnership between Chinese state-owned construction firm Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Indonesia's MNC Land is planning a giant theme-park outside Jakarta with hotels, shopping, and residential developments.

Wealthier than locals, these new Chinese expats will be spending big, including on dining out. They’ll also be more reachable with conservation-themed messages, given that Indonesia – and to a lesser extent Malaysia and Thailand – have a freer press and society than China’s, allowing for debate and discussion. Conservation campaigns will have to be adapted to these new trends. 

International hotel chains could play a key role in this effort, as brand-conscious Chinese are already familiar with them due to their presence in China, and many stay in these chains’ properties when traveling in Southeast Asia. The Marine Stewardship Council has already sought to bridge this gap with its partnership with Shangri La Hotels and Resorts. Retailers and holiday companies catering to the Chinese tourism market are likely the next to be targeted by sustainable seafood campaigns.

In short, China’s seafood consumers are to a greater and greater extent driving consumption trends across the region. This new breed of travelers is ripe for conversion to more sustainable seafood eating habits, but the stakes are high. The fate of the region’s marine environment possibly hanging in the balance.

Photo courtesy of T&K Seafood

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