Australia has hit China in a big way, buying up advertising space to promote the land of the kangaroo and koala to outbound Chinese travelers.
Tourism Australia, the country’s government-run promotion agency, said it spends an average of US$5 million per year marketing itself in China and the results are starting to be seen. The agency expects mainland Chinese visitors to rise 17% year-on-year in 2007 to 353,000.
Mainland China now ranks as Australia’s fifth-largest source of tourists and 12.7% annual growth is expected over the next 10 years.
Central to the promotional efforts is Australia’s affordability.
“Chinese tourists find accommodation and transport are better value than those of other Western destinations,” said May Tang, chief representative of Tourism Australia in China. “The time difference and travel time are also acceptable” to Chinese tourists who come for the country’s “fresh air, animals and oceans.”
They are also coming to do business. Tourism Australia is tasked with selling hotels and convention centers as potential conference locations. In 2006 the country welcomed 159,000 package tourists and 67,000 Chinese business travelers..
Australia was an early starter in the Chinese tourism market. China signed the first Approved Destination Status (ADS) agreements – a bilateral tourism agreement admitting Chinese tourists in guided package groups on special visas – with Australia and New Zealand in 1997. Only the 81 countries that have signed an ADS protocol with China can be promoted as a tourism destination in Chinese media.
Australia ranks in China’s top five destinations for ADS tours, alongside Germany, France and the UK, according to the German-based Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Project. The US absence from the ADS scheme and a rising euro may help the country continue to hold its own.
Part of Australia’s success in drawing Chinese visitors is down to the army of “Aussie Specialists” – travel agents that Tourism Australia has trained across China. To get certification, agents take exams on a nine-module online curriculum which introduces them to Australia’s tourist attractions.
“We figured [training specialists] was more efficient than going around China renting out premises and talking to 50 people who’d forget the message anyway,” said Tang.
The 1,004 Aussie Specialists certified since the scheme began in 2001 are seasoned English-speaking travel agents working at large state-run travel groups like China International Travel Service and China Travel Service (CTS). There are three levels of specialists, the top ones being “premier specialists” who are dedicated to marketing only Australia.
Peng Miao, head of outbound tours at the Beijing headquarters of CTS, is one of 300 Aussie specialists in Beijing. Accreditation as an Aussie specialist is “very helpful” for tailoring packages to increasingly demanding Chinese tourists, said Peng, who had to pass three exams to become a premier specialist.
“I get a lot of knowledge about Australia’s regions from the online network set up for specialists,” he added.
Australia package sales have risen 20% this year compared to 2006 figures, Peng said. And specifically, tourist demand for higher quality products is rising fast. CTS tour groups comprise at least 15 people but prices vary hugely: The deluxe, five-star package offered by CTS – with an emphasis on “scenery and food” – costs US$4,070 per person for 11 days. A “quality” option comes in at US$2,713 per person for 11 days while the budget group package is US$2,035.
“Quality” tours accounted for 60% of sales in 2007 while “deluxe” and “budget” accounted for 20% each, said Peng. CTS group tourists tend to be aged 30-60, although the company also offers special groups for older travelers.
The language barrier means the majority of Australia-bound Chinese tourists still stick to groups. But an increasing number of visitors are traveling in smaller groups or alone, said Tang.
“SARS was a turning point; afterwards group sizes dropped and there was a feeling it’s good to have a smaller party and enjoy it more.”
While many tour groups are bused from Sydney Harbor along the “Blue Pacific Road route,” a highway snaking 60 kilometers south to Wollongong, others prefer to take their time. Tourism Australia has identified a lucrative new type of Chinese traveler, the “experience seeker.”
“They don’t just want a photo by the Sydney Harbor, they also want to sail on the harbor or swim with the dolphins,” said Tang.
In a report published by Tourism Northern Territory (Tourism NT), “experience seekers” – who are typically 29-45 – make up 32% of all inbound tourists from China. Tourism NT has tailored its marketing strategy accordingly, focusing mainly on “experience seekers who are interested in high-end nature-based and cultural experiences.”
There are even plans to publicize the country’s more remote regions to this demographic, said Tang.
A “free and easy” package for two or three people offered by CTS includes visa and accommodation as well as airport transfers. But after arrival, travelers are then free to explore on their own.
However, the majority of Chinese tourists are not up for roughing it. Tourism Australia data shows mainland tourists spent only 14% of their trips to Australia outside major cities such as Sydney and Melbourne. New South Wales is the top regional destination, with its capital Sydney the most popular city. Melbourne is number two.
Though Australia lacks the luxury and fashion brand names of Europe, shopping time remains a “must” for Chinese tour groups, said Tang. Tourists spent an average US$5,010 per person in Australia in 2006, the fifth highest globally.
Australia’s Chinese visitors are also a regionally focused bunch. The wealthy southern province of Guangdong has always been a key market for Australian tourism, with Shanghai and Beijing second and third respectively.
Southern Chinese, said Tang, are keen to revisit the sites of the Australian gold rush in the 1800s, when large groups of migrants from Fujian and Guangdong provinces went to seek their fortunes in Australian gold mines. Many Chinese settlements from the time can still be seen in Victoria.
Air to there
Further increases in Chinese travelers to Australia will depend on air capacity. Several Tourism Australia reports have measured with some concern the 367,000 air seats to and from China in 2006 compared to the 5.4 million seat capacity on US and European routes.
Load factors – the percentage of seats sold – on Qantas’ China routes are “always in the high 80s,” said Joyce Mak, the Australian airline’s chief representative in mainland China. Qantas returned to the mainland in November 2004 with a new route to Shanghai and opened its three-days-a-week service between Beijing and Sydney in 2006.
From March 2008 the airline will have a daily flight to China (Beijing and Shanghai) when it adds two flights per week from Melbourne, said Mak. Qantas has also won approval to operate daily flights between Beijing and Sydney from August 4-24 next year. However, there are currently no plans to offer flights to other Chinese cities.
Qantas has better capacity in Hong Kong with daily services to both Sydney and Melbourne, as well as four flights a week to Brisbane and three to Perth. Mainland tourists are also being carried to Australia on other Asian services out of Japan and Korea.
“Chinese travelers are less bothered than other travelers by having to transfer through other third cities,” said Tang. Other Chinese travelers go for the thrill of the Singapore Airlines service to Sydney in the new Airbus A380.
Tour leader Peng believes that offering new products and destinations every year is vital if Australia is to compete with the likes of France, Italy and the US.
“China’s market is very big [so] a wide variety of products is needed,” he said.