A practical approach to attracting Chinese travellers

I was intrigued to read the piece in Tourism Update reporting the views of Marcus Lee, and the subsequent comments by readers. The headline was Change is needed for SA to attract more Chinese visitors but it is just as relevant to other Southern African countries.

A topic dear to my heart, for two reasons.   

Firstly, I help out at Self Drive Tours Botswana at busy times. My wife is one of the directors. Chinese travellers tend to be well educated, engaging, and intensely interested in all manner of things. We would love to have more of them.

Secondly, I’m a retired university professor. A decade ago I was involved with research looking into the experiences of Chinese fully independent travellers (FIT) in New Zealand.

Some of the research team were native Mandarin speakers. Chinese tourists use social media, and we could follow their reports to their friends and families back home on WeChat.  This was something of an eye-opener. You can interview Chinese tourists face-to-face and get useful information, but it is always filtered through a veil of good manners.  WeChat posts to friends and families are tailored to a different audience.

Asked face-to-face about the cuisine, a tourist might say, “I found it different and interesting.  I didn’t know there were so many ways to cook potatoes.” On WeChat they will tell their friends “Eaten potatoes every night for the last week. Cooked many ways, but I would give anything for a bowl of steamed rice. If you come here yourself must bring rice cooker.”

Simple posts like this highlighted some simple changes that NZ providers could make. Say you own a self-catering cottage, advertised via social media to Chinese FIT guests. They may not want or need the usual large oven, but may be really pleased to have a rice cooker and a wok. Advertise that you have them.

For sure, most tourists will want to experience the local cuisine. But when renting a self-catering apartment they may want to cook something familiar.

Watching domestic tourists in China told us a lot too. For example, Lijiang (Yunnan Province) is the fourth most popular destination for internal tourism within China. Horse trekking through the surrounding forests and hills is very popular. There are over 5 000 trekking horses kept in the villages surrounding Lashi Lake alone, attracting up to 10 000 riders per day in peak season. But horse trekking operators in NZ seldom if ever attract a Chinese tourist. Why not?

A typical horse trek in NZ involves taking full control of a big animal and following a mounted guide into the hills or along a deserted beach at a gallop. A horse trek in Yunnan involves sitting on a small Tibetan pony, one of a string of similar animals. A guide leads the string on foot. 

The trek proceeds at walking pace, and the riders are never in control of their mount. The opportunity to dress up in cowboy apparel and be photographed on horseback is an important part of the excursion. So is the opportunity to care for the pony. Tourists are invited to interact with their pony by buying it treats at each refreshment stop, brushing it at the end of the ride, and singing to it along the trail.

If tourists value the opportunity to feed, groom and sing to horses more than galloping over the horizon with the wind in the hair, surely we can deliver.

The Chinese FIT traveller market has been very important for New Zealand. The number of tourist arrivals has grown dramatically over the past two decades. So has the proportion of those tourists choosing to drive themselves around the country independently. A large part of the increase shown on both graphs is due to the Chinese.

Chinese FITs are now visiting old goldfields and historic sites in out-of-the-way places. They are photographing wildflowers and flocks of sheep; checking out locations of their favourite movies; marvelling at the stars in the dark night skies; and enjoying walking barefoot on deserted beaches. They are even finding their way to my home village of Ranfurly, population about 800.

Yes, the tourism offerings have had to change a little. But not greatly. The NZ government commissioned more research into the Chinese FIT market, which ended in the production of ten training modules for providers. You can find an overview here https://irp-cdn.multiscreensite.com/859a5f60/files/uploaded/mbie%20china%20fit%20visitor%20market%20reseach%20report.pdf. I suspect that the NZ government would happily share all the training materials with other Commonwealth countries if asked. Botswana Tourism Organisation, please take note!

I’m sure Marcus Lee is correct. To attract more Chinese tourists to Africa we need to make some changes. If New Zealand can do it so can we. Get the horse treats ready!