The death sentence given to Canadian drug trafficker Robert Schellenberg by a Chinese court has spooked Canadian tourists planning to visit the People’s Republic.
“Everyone is feeling it,” said Canadian travel agent Julius Yan, president of Laurus Travel. “The last couple of days, and especially this morning, we have been getting calls from people who are concerned and about half want to cancel their tour to China.”
Late Monday, Canada updated its advisory for travellers to China “due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.” The Chinese foreign ministry then warned its own citizens that they could be “arbitrarily detained at the request of a third nation” if they visit Canada.
Tensions between Canada and China have been rising since Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver for extradition to the United States after allegedly violating American trade sanctions against Iran.
Less than a week later, two Canadians — former diplomat Michael Kovrig and non-profit worker Michael Spavor — were arrested in China in apparent retribution.
Canadians are urged to exercise a high degree of caution when travelling to China, said Global Affairs spokesman Guillaume Berube.
Travellers may experience scrutiny by local officials and police while in China and the Chinese Embassy in Canada announced late in December that as of Jan. 1 adult travellers to China must be fingerprinted before a visa will be issued.
“Chinese authorities may define certain behaviours and activities as ‘endangering national security’ that would not be considered as such in Canada,” warns Global Affairs. You may be detained for up to six months before being formally arrested in security matters.
Amid the latest diplomatic salvos over the Schelleberg case, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying urged Canada to remind its citizens “to never come to China to commit serious offences such as smuggling or trafficking drugs.”
The death sentence to Schellenberg, who was already serving a 15-year sentence for his crimes in China, appears to be the last straw for wary travellers.
“Escalating tension between Canada and China is having a very negative effect on businesses like ours,” said Yan. “Some Canadians booked on our tours this year have called and emailed to express their concerns and we want to alleviate their anxiety.”
While Canadians are postponing and cancelling their trips, bookings from American customers are on the rise at Laurus Travel.
“In the U.S. it seems to be business as usual,” said Yan, who maintains that China is a safe vacation destination for average Canadians.
Schellenberg is far from average. He was jailed in B.C. for possession for the purpose of drug trafficking in 2012 after being found with heroin and cocaine. He has impaired driving and drug-related convictions dating back to 2003.
Tensions could put a damper on travel to China for the Lunar New Year, which starts in three weeks.
“Even though I have family in China, as a Canadian, I won’t be going there anytime soon,” said Clifford Marr, a public relations specialist. “I have also been warning people not to go to China or transit through China to other Asian countries like the Philippines.”
B.C.’s Minister of State for Trade George Chow has warned that a planned trade mission to Asia by B.C. officials in March could be postponed if relations between the two nations do not improve.
The Office of the Premier said that no firm decisions have been made about the trip.
China’s travel warning to its citizens puts at risk about $1.6 billion that 682,000 tourists from China spend in Canada each year.
More than 290,000 residents of mainland China visit Vancouver each year, according to Statistics Canada. Chinese tourists spend an average of $2,400 each per trip.
For those brave enough to visit China in uncertain times, bargains can be had.
UTO Vacation on Tuesday morning offered a nine-night China vacation package including return flights from Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto to Shanghai for $599, according to Travelzoo.
With files from Rob Shaw
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