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Missing flight threatens popular tourist route

Passengers check-in at Malaysia Airlines on March 10, 2014 in Beijing.

Three days after Malaysian Airlines flight 370 went missing, investigators have made little progress. The flight had taken off from Kuala Lumpur and was headed to Beijing. More than half the 239 people aboard were Chinese.

Chinese, Vietnamese, and Malaysian crews continue their search for wreckage off of Vietnam's coast and families of Chinese passengers are becoming impatient. Fears are mounting that the plane – a Boeing 777 – was destroyed in an act of terrorism.

The fact that the flight's last radar signal came over the South China Sea complicates things. It was technically in Vietnamese airspace, but much of the South China Sea is disputed territory between Malaysia, Vietnam, China, and others. Editorials in China's state-run press openly wondered why it's taken Malaysia and Malaysian Airlines so long to find clues as to why this flight went missing.

In recent years, Malaysia and its neighbors have been a top tourist destination for Chinese travelers. A recent TripAdvisor survey showed half of the top 20 destinations for outboud Chinese travelers were in Southeast Asia.

The airport in Kuala Lumpur has seen a spike in tourists as a result.

"I think the impact on Malaysia Airlines will be most significant,” says Wei Changren, CEO of Jinlu tourism consulting. In fact, shares in Malaysia Airlines suffered a 16 percent decline on Monday.

"It will also affect Malaysia's tourism industry," says Changren. "Thanks to this incident, more Chinese tourists now believe security at Malaysian airports is pretty lax."

Close to 100 million Chinese now fly to foreign countries each year, a number that's risen by nearly 20 percent annually. And whatever the result of the investigation into Malaysia Airlines flight 370, analysts predict those numbers to keep rising.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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