Chinese tourism potential ignored

THE Chinese are coming. By their millions. As tourists. And it will change our economy in ways that we cannot even imagine.

Tourism is already our third largest export industry behind only coal and iron ore. Almost six million people will visit this year. The industry employs more than half a million people.

In terms of numbers of visitors, China is already our fourth largest source of tourists, but in terms of their value to our economy, Chinese tourists rank second, just behind the UK. But that is based on only 394,000 Chinese tourists last year.

It might seem a lot, but less than one in 3000 Chinese visited last year compared to one in 300 Japanese and Koreans.

I have spent the past few days in a small village outside a town once called Jiantang. Until a few years ago this was a small unknown town in the foothills of the Himalayas in the far west of Yunnan Province. Then the local government decided to change its name to attract tourists. Purely as a marketing strategy they decided it was the mythical valley of Shangri-La made famous in James Hilton’s 1921 novel, Lost Horizon. The town and the surrounding county were renamed Shangri-La and all of a sudden an industry was born.

In the past five years a massive building boom of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and the like have transformed this obscure little town into a sprawling city and still they are building like no tomorrow and still the tourists keep coming.

This is one of the most isolated and hardest to get to parts of China. And yet, Shangri-La attracted more than 4 million visitors last year, over 95 per cent of them being Chinese domestic travellers.

It is really a case of build a story, a mythology, an aura and they will come. Australia has all three in spades. Blue skies, clean beaches, tropical islands, the Barrier Reef, Sydney, deserts, the Red Centre, our indigenous culture, space and lack of crowds.

Build a strong narrative around what we have to offer and make Australia as welcoming and easy a destination as possible and Chinese tourism will repay us many times over.

As a nation we simply have to diversify away from an almost total reliance on commodity exports. Tourism is by far our strongest opportunity to do so, and the main game is, without any doubt, China.

The lesson of Shangri-La is Chinese tourism is all about marketing. For all of our efforts at selling ourselves in China, from what I have seen we are still flying way below the radar.

We simply have to do a much better job and we have to do it yesterday.

Source:  Courier Mail–29 Nov. 2010

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