Chinese tourism boom drives innovation
THEY are not particularly keen on relaxing on the beach with a beer. So what is attracting half a million Chinese tourists to Queensland each year?
Griffith University tourism expert Dr Sarah Gardiner says Chinese tourists love the pristine beaches and blue skies of Queensland but are not beachgoers in the traditional Aussie sense.
"They don't like going in the sun because they don't want to get sunburnt and they also don't particularly like going into the water," says Gardiner.
"They may walk along the beach and dip their toes in the water but many of them can't swim. Even something like going in a speed boat, which is nothing to us, is a big adventure for them."
Deloitte Access Economics says China is Queensland's largest and fastest-growing international visitor market, with the Chinese spending $1.1 billion in 2016-17 on accommodation, meals and a variety of experiences from surfing lessons and helicopter tours to climbing the Story Bridge.
Chinese tourists also are among the biggest overseas spenders, outlaying an average of $2210 per person in Queensland, 10 per cent more than the average international visitor. Visitors from China to the Brisbane region grew by 7.4 per cent in 2017 and are set to skyrocket once The Star Entertainment Group's Queen's Wharf integrated resort is completed in 2024.
Gardiner says the challenge for local tour operators is to get into the mindset of the Chinese tourist and what they are seeking from their holiday experience.
"While a bush walk for a westerner may be all about the experience, the Chinese are often more attracted to what happens at the end," she says.
"For example, the photo opportunity at the waterfall or scenic spot."
When Kerri Jekyll wanted to attract Chinese tourists to her Gold Coast-based Get Wet Surf School about five years ago, she was initially told not to bother.
"I was told the Chinese did not like the sun and were afraid of the water," she says. "That was a bit of a red flag challenge for me."
Jekyll adapted to the Chinese guest by introducing classes later in the day, provided protective clothing and holding lessons in shallow water.
"Many of them can't swim so we do it at The Spit where the water is shallow and if they fall off it doesn't matter," says Jekyll.
"They are not like the Brazilian tourists who are really athletic. The Chinese are less results driven. They really love social media and it is about showing their friends through platforms like WeChat."
She says Chinese tourists now make up 30 per cent of her customers compared to one per cent five years ago.
Australian Sunset Safaris marketing manager Roland Huang says he always has to remind his staff to keep Chinese tourists engaged.
"A westerner is happy to sit on a beach and have a beer, but this is difficult for a Chinese or Asian tourist," says Huang, whose company organises beach adventure tours on Fraser and Moreton islands.
"It is all go, go, go. So we have things like snorkelling, kayaking and sand tobogganing. By the end of the day, they are exhausted but feel like they have got their money's worth." Huang says Chinese now make up about 40 per cent of the company's clientele.
The Star Entertainment Group chief executive Matt Bekier says about 40 per cent of all Chinese visitors make their way to Queensland during their stay.
"If that market share remains consistent, the number of Chinese visitors to the state will rise to around 1.56 million inside a decade," he says. But he cautions that while Queensland is welcoming more Chinese visitors each year, it has in the past year lost market share to other parts of Australia.
Regions like south-east Queensland will be required to meet the needs of a more sophisticated traveller now coming out of China.
"Wealth creation that has seen the middle-class demographic explode in China has produced a more adventurous and independent traveller looking for authentic experiences, from quality hotels and dining offerings to local and natural attractions," says Bekier.
Enticing Chinese tourists to strap in for the Story Bridge Adventure Climb is high on the agenda for general manager Michael Lawson who took over the business last year and recently started a Mandarin climb.
"The growth I see for us is potentially large given projections of tourist numbers and while it is early days it is a very firm future plan for us," he says.
Lawson has been in China educating tour and convention agents that Brisbane has a bridge to climb while also putting the activity on the map of Australian attractions.
Griffith University's Gardiner says surging Chinese tourism is going to have a massive impact on the sector and the numbers will have to be carefully managed.
"The issue of volume is going to be something we have to address," she says. "We have learnt lessons from the Japanese tourist boom in Surfers Paradise in the 1980s. You don't want to put all your eggs in one basket."
Gardiner says more work needs to be done to improve the standard of accommodation to meet Chinese demands. Another challenge will be integrating the Chinese tourist into the mainstream as more Chinese forgo tour groups and venture out by themselves or as couples.
"Previously, when they would arrive in a tour bus at a theme park, they would be taken around separately from everyone else," she says.
"Now increasingly they are going to experience the same thing as other tourists."
Tangalooma Island Resort director David James says the biggest trend is away from large Chinese tour groups to so-called free independent travellers (FITs).
"The independent Chinese traveller now makes up half of the visitation by Chinese tourists to Tangalooma," says James. "There are lots of families but also young couples aged 24-35."
James says that while these Chinese are big shoppers, they also are increasingly splashing out on tours. "They will do two or three activities whereas an Australian tourist will only do one and spend the rest of their stay relaxing," he says. Chinese tourists particularly want experiences they can't have in China.
"They want to get away from the hustle and bustle," he says. "They love helicopter flights because it is something they cannot do at home."
James adds there are major regional difference among Chinese travellers.
"The ones from southern China operate at a different level of sophistication from the northern Chinese because they have been exposed to Hong Kong media for 20 years," James says.
"The Chinese from interior provinces are more keen on whale watching as opposed to someone from a coastal city like Shanghai."
Catering for other requirements such as Chinese digital payment systems also was becoming increasingly important. Viva City is one company eyeing the increasing tech savvy of Chinese when they venture overseas.
The startup, which was lured from the United Kingdom to Queensland last year as part of Advance Queensland's Hot DesQ program, has developed a language translation program for Chinese tourists that operates on the WeChat platform.
Viva City director Sam Rason says that as more independent Chinese travellers come to Australia the need for assistance in translating things like menus and information booklets will become more important.
"Local restaurants like Jimmy's on the Mall are already using the service," says Rason.