One Step Beyond: Building Australia’s Chinese tourist capabilities

By Jessie Zhang

Outbound tourists are China’s most powerful export right now. Australia’s environment – clean, green and pristine – has historically sold itself, but the Chinese market is becoming more complex and we need to be more competitive. China has become Australia’s most valuable tourism market in terms of both total spend and visitor nights. In 2015, over one million Chinese tourists landed on our shores, accumulating a total spend of AU$8.3 billion. By 2020, 234 million outbound Chinese travellers are expected to spend over AU$558 billion across the world. By 2020, Australia modestly hopes to attract 1.6 million Chinese tourists.

The ‘tour package’ tourists are giving way to a new breed of Chinese travellers who steer well clear of the flag-bearing group tours we’re accustomed to seeing at the Sydney Opera House and marching down to Phillip Island.These FIT (Free and Independent) travellers have the desire and financial means to explore Australia beyond the busy cities on our eastern seaboard, and they demand unique and authentic experiences, and. They want bragging rights on WeChat. They want to give their friends an opportunity to ask ‘wow, where is that?’.
The ‘off the beaten track’ travel mentality is different in the Western and Chinese mind. As Westerners, we are conditioned to believe that the more inconvenient an experience, the more authentic it is. Many of us believe that a restaurant that does not offer an English menu will serve more authentic food and a destination requiring two flights, a bus and bumpy car ride is more exotic, the lack of a crowd meaning you’ve found something special.  While these anecdotal assumptions often ring true, the Chinese view things differently. They are not quite willing to throw away the safety net of a Chinese-language menu, a nonstop flight, and the comfort of a crowd, albeit a small one. In fact, the Chinese often describe an empty place as leng qing or cold and lonely. 

While the trial 10-year frequent traveller visitor visa is an invaluable initiative, there are further important introductions that must be collectively implemented by the tourism industry across our nation’s key destinations – Chinese-language collateral, Mandarin-speaking staff, aviation and overland access, and of course, free Wi-Fi are part of, what I believe, is the Basic Package. 

The Northern Territory is a spectacular example of why we need this Basic Package. My mother and I travelled to Uluru in March. She is a prolific WeChat user with more contacts in her network than I have Facebook friends and Instagram followers combined. I wanted to visit Uluru because I’m 24 with a bottomless travel bucket list. Mum wanted to go because none of her friends had been before, and it would make for great WeChat content. Ironically, the greatest culture shock upon arriving at Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara, was the fact that over the course of the week, we appeared to be two of only a handful of Chinese, or East Asian people there. The kiosk inside the information centre for Chinese-language tours was rarely manned, and when we did bump into one of their vans at Kata Tjuta, there was only three guests on board. 

The first series of photos that Mum uploaded to her WeChat Moments generated the anticipated ooh’s and ahh’s, but it was the repeated questions and comments regarding the logistics of travelling there, getting around and communication that demonstrates practicality is still one of the greatest drivers and predictors of Chinese travel habits. No direct flights from Mainland China, coupled with relatively high cost of a domestic flights to Alice Springs, Darwin or Uluru, compared to that of Northern Queensland or Western Australia, means that the Northern Territory has some big structural issues to overcome to increase their much-deserved market share. 

Maldives is an example of a destination reaping the rewards of the Chinese tourism boom and maximizing the opportunities being offered by this lucrative market. Renowned for its unspoilt beaches and luxurious resorts, the Maldives offers the Basic Package - the convenience of direct flights, visa-free entry, UnionPay banking, and now, all 55 five-star hotels in the Maldives employ Mandarin-speaking staff. Many local shops and restaurants have also begun accepting payments in renminbi, and in 2015, the small island welcomed almost half a million Chinese tourists. 

Greater investment in the tourism sector is essential in building productive capacity and driving long term profitability, innovation and growth. Australian tourism ministers have indicated their commitment to collaborating with the industry to support the development of the essential infrastructure required to cope with the expected demand. To put this into perspective, Australia needs 16 new five-star hotels a year if it is to keep up with the increase in inbound tourists over the next few years. Of course, the Basic Package is not an overnight checklist, but in this Australia - China Year of Tourism, it provides a benchmark of where we need to be to wholeheartedly capture and leverage the Chinese tourism market. 

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