HONG KONG: A recent surge in apprehension among Chinese travelers is impacting Myanmar and Cambodia’s status as holiday destinations.
The catalyst for this unease is the immense success of the Chinese crime action film, “No More Bets,” which delves into the alarming world of cybercrime in Southeast Asia.
The movie, which has held the top spot at the Chinese box office since its early August release, exposes the intricate workings of cybercrime, drawing inspiration from real-life cases.
It narrates the harrowing story of a Chinese couple who, lured by lucrative overseas job offers, fall victim to fraudulent schemes that force them into online scam operations under constant surveillance.
With the film’s tagline, “One more viewer, one less fraud victim,” the creators aim to raise awareness of this growing issue.
In recent years, Myanmar and Cambodia have grappled with headlines of online fraud-related human trafficking schemes.
On Aug 29, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the problem persists, with an estimated 120,000 people in Myanmar and 100,000 in Cambodia ensnared in situations where criminal groups compel them to conduct online scams.
Moreover, other nations in the vicinity, such as Laos, the Philippines, and Thailand, have been identified as significant hubs for human trafficking transit or as destinations themselves, hosting tens of thousands of individuals.
The aftermath of the film has sent ripples through China’s outbound tourism industry, as travelers become increasingly reluctant to explore these countries.
Additionally, Cambodia is taking measures to ban the public screening of the movie due to alleged harm to its image and reputation, along with the potential consequences for the country’s tourism sector.
Southeast Asia travel plans decline among Chinese tourists due to safety worries
In 2019, 35% of Cambodia’s foreign visitors were Chinese, making China its largest tourism market.
Likewise, China was a significant source of tourists for Myanmar even during the pandemic and ongoing civil conflict.
Tourism insiders have reported that the cyber scams in Myanmar have severely damaged the country’s reputation, eroding tourist confidence.
Despite China lifting a ban on group tours on Aug 10, the number of inquiries and planned visits has dwindled.
According to a report by The Japan Times, a recent survey conducted on the Chinese social media platform Weibo disclosed that out of 54,000 participants, 48,000 indicated their intention to refrain from visiting Myanmar, with an additional 3,000 expressing hesitancy, primarily due to safety concerns.
In a different survey targeting Chinese online users about their willingness to journey to Southeast Asia, more than 85% of respondents indicated that they would not contemplate travelling to the region for the same reason.
Bids to attract Chinese tourists
To woo back Chinese tourists after the ban on group tours was lifted in January, Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism launched the “China Ready” initiative in August.
This program’s goal is to grant accreditation to tourism businesses that meet the standards set by Chinese authorities.
Through this initiative, Cambodia has set its sights on welcoming a minimum of 800,000 Chinese visitors by the conclusion of this year.
Meanwhile, in July, Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding with China’s Jilin province to promote each other as key tourist destinations and enhance trade and economic relations.
However, these efforts with a focus on China have faced significant resistance and opposition from Chinese internet users.
Videos posted on social media platforms explaining these initiatives have been inundated with critical comments from individuals voicing safety apprehensions and raising questions about the timing of this partnership.
“If I visit the place, I don’t think I can leave there physically intact,” one user stated, regarding the Cambodian initiative.
International efforts to combat human trafficking-linked scams
China itself grapples with online fraud, with authorities revealing thousands of cases in 2022, resulting in the arrest of gang leaders and key members of criminal groups.
One case comes to mind of a 46-year-old individual named Xin Weilin, the CEO of a tourism company based in Guiyang who managed to break free after being compelled to work for a scam syndicate in Myanmar.
In a similar incident, eight individuals from Sarawak were tricked by a job scam and ended up being compelled to become scammers in Myanmar.
Originally, they were offered jobs in Thailand through Facebook, promising salaries of RM3,000 to RM6,000 (approximately US$1,275) per person.
However, these victims had no knowledge of the jobs they were being offered.
After arriving in Thailand, they were immediately transported to Myanmar and forced into working as scammers.
If they failed to meet their ’employers’ targets, they faced abuse and threats of being sold to other parties.
As such, the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar has been cautioning citizens not to pursue high-salary online job postings or engage in unlawful activities.
In a display of growing multinational cooperation, China has partnered with public security officials from Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar to combat human trafficking-related online fraud and gambling crimes, establishing a coordination center in the Thai city of Chiang Mai to enhance collaborative efforts against these issues.
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