Chinese Tourism to Australia: Are we ready?

China has overtaken the UK to become Australia’s biggest source of tourism by export value. Sophie Loras looks at what federal and state governments are doing to accommodate this market.

In February, Melbourne Airport threw a very special party for its incoming Chinese passengers. Greeting them on arrival were lion dancing performances, celebratory banners, lanterns and promotional retail offers to help ring in the Chinese New Year of the Rabbit. The celebrations were all part of an ongoing strategy by the airport to ensure its Chinese travellers feel welcome and respected on arrival in Melbourne. The airport has for some time, been providing a Mandarin homepage on its website (the biggest hits being for shopping and transport queries), Mandarin Chinese public address messages, Chinese signage in both its arrivals and departures halls and cultural training for front line staff.

January and February in particular are key months for Chinese inbound tourism as mainland visitors take advantage of the extended Chinese New Year break, and this year was no exception. International visitor numbers to Melbourne Airport exceeded 600,000 in the month of January – driven by a 33 percent increase in visitors from China over the same period in 2010.

Currently, China is Australia’s fourth biggest source by volume of international tourism behind New Zealand, the UK and the US after it overtook Japan last year.

The TFC predicts inbound arrivals from China will become Australia’s second largest market behind NZ by 2018. Most recently, China overtook the UK as Australia’s top inbound market by economic value – worth around $3.5 billion.

And as China creeps up the ladder to becoming not only Victoria’s top source of tourists, but also Australia’s, the pressure is on Australian tourism service providers to better cater for this growing market.

Figures from Tourism Australia show the country’s tourism industry was worth $33 billion to the Australian economy in 2010 (2.6 percent of total GDP) and generates $92 billion in spending. Tourism directly employs 4.5 percent of the Australian workforce (around 500,000 Australians) and is Australia’s largest services export earner.

And the importance of the Chinese market is not lost on state and federal agencies.

Tourism Australia’s 2020 Tourism Industry Potential – a call for Australian industry and government to focus on increased returns from the tourism industry – puts the potential value of tourist overnight expenditure by 2020 at between $115 billion and $140 billion. Its five key focus areas include prioritizing aviation partnerships to help grow profitable capacity and singles out the need for a dedicated China plan.

The role airlines play in increasing tourism numbers to a city is clearly demonstrated in Victoria, where a boon in additional direct flights from Mainland China to Melbourne at the end of 2010 and early 2011 by its three biggest airlines – China Southern, China Eastern and Air China – has been credited with a 21.8 percent jump last year in Chinese tourist growth through Melbourne Airport (an increase of more than 60,000 passengers).

Damian Tkalec, the Executive General Manager Corporate Development with Melbourne Airport, is responsible for engaging relationships with Chinese airlines.

“We spend a lot of time with our Chinese airlines and strive to make our airport as friendly and cost effective as possible to our Chinese passengers,” Mr Tkalec says.

“The world is changing and China is playing, and continues to play, a more significant role in cultural links. We want our airport to be a part of that.”

Mr Tkalec says bringing an airline to Melbourne supports tourism and cultural links for the city and state but he still thinks Australians and Victorians have a long way to go in fully understanding the benefits of the Australia-China relationship.

“It is so massive, so explosive, the transformation going on in China at the moment that I don’t think people can get their heads around it,” he says.

“I think Melbourne has a lot to gain from embracing China, and if we don’t embrace it we are actually not going to grow as a city.”

Victoria is Australia’s second most popular state with Chinese tourists after NSW and ahead of Queensland, but the gap then to Australia’s other states and territories is lagging.tourism_statesandterritories_slide

Francis Wong, the Managing Director of Adelaide-based inbound specialist travel agency, Encounter Australia, and a former Chair of the Australian Tourism Export Council’s Asian Tourism Advisory Panel, says the big challenge is to raise the profile of Australia as a premium western country holiday experience. He says more needs to be done also, on how to better promote regional Australia.

“South Australia for example finds it hard to attract serious Chinese tourists,” Mr Wong says.

He also says Australia needs to use other pull factors to attract premium and affluent Chinese tourists to Australia.

“Chinese can afford to pay top dollars but we are seen and promoted as a cheap destination by value,” he says.

Queensland has been doing its bit to attract Chinese tourism to the state – last year committing a $520,000 investment with China Southern Airlines in a campaign to promote the airline’s new three weekly Guangzhou-Brisbane route through outdoor and print advertising and online promotions.

In June last year, the Australian government pledged $30 million to market Australia to the Chinese. The investment includes funding towards an Australia-China Tourism Forum to be held in Cairns later this year.

The forum will be a boon for Far North Queensland, which has relied heavily in the past on the declining Japanese market.

The Australian government is also committed to preserving its 11-year old Chinese Approved Destination Status (ADS), a bilateral agreement between Australia and China to facilitate organised travel tour groups from China to Australia, after it suspended two New South Wales tour operators last year for breach of business standards and ethics.

Pleasure and Leisure

Findings from Tourism Research Australia, show that of the more than 400,000 Chinese who visited Australia last year, shopping for pleasure (80 percent) was the top pastime, followed closely by site seeing, dining and eating out and going to the beach. Half of all Chinese tourists who visit Australia also like to visit national parks as well as botanic gardens and city parks. And while only 9 percent of all international tourists want to visit a farm while in Australia, almost a quarter of Chinese like to do so. Chinese visitors also love to gamble – with one third visiting a casino while in Australia.

According to Tourism Australia, Chinese tourists also spend longer stints in Australia compared to other groups – averaging 53 nights per stay, and contributing in 2009, more the A$7287 per visitor to the Australian economy – more than double the average spend of Japanese tourists.

At year ending September 2010, Chinese were more likely to come to Australia for Education (22 percent), on a package tour (38 percent) and much more likely to come on a group tour (37 percent).

tourism_topchineseleisure_web2Even more telling, is the length of preparation time that goes into planning a trip to Australia. Around half  (49 percent) of holiday visitors from China and 60 percent of VFR (Visiting Friends and Relatives) visitors travelling to Australia in 2009, booked their flights to Australia within one month of travel.

In 2009, the most common information sources for first-time Chinese visitors to Australia were travel agents (40 percent), Internet (35 percent) and a friend or relative living in Australia (24 percent).

Chinese Visitors to Australia tend to spend most of their nights (82 percent) within the major gateways of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

The 15 to 24 and 45 to 54 age groups are the two biggest age groups represented by Chinese visitors to Australia.

In 2009, around 50 percent of Chinese visitors to Australia were repeat visitors. 

*To read more about Chinese holiday expectations in Australia, click here.



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