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Cultivating Chinese tourists' African dreams

Updated: 2014-11-28 11:22
By Joseph Catanzaro and Yang Ziman (China Daily Africa)

While experienced travelers consider Africa a must, concerns such as price and safety remain issues

In an upmarket Beijing cafe, Gong Jiayi sips her flat white coffee and enthusiastically runs through the highlights of her latest holiday to Japan.

The 27-year-old, middle-class professional is one of an estimated 100 million Chinese tourists who have already traveled abroad this year.

A hip and worldly project manager who works for an environmental consultancy firm, Gong represents the changing face of the new Chinese outbound traveler.

She likes to make her own travel arrangements instead of opting for a group tour, and she books her accommodation online or through mobile apps.

The Chinese tourist is a demographic that in the past decade has gone from being almost nonexistent to the biggest and most lucrative force in the global tourism market. Given that only about 5 percent of China's population of 1.3 billion is currently estimated to hold a passport, it is only going to get bigger.

In the next five years, the China Tourism Academy predicts the nation's total number of outbound tourists will widen its lead as the No 1 global market, rising to 150 million Chinese travelers going abroad annually.

With an average travel budget of $1,100 per day, excluding accommodation, the Chinese tourist already spends more than any other nationality when on holiday. By the end of this year, estimates suggest they will collectively have spent a staggering $155 billion abroad in their travel destinations, a 20.8 percent increase from last year.

Gong has now vacationed in 10 different countries overseas. But not a single one of them has been in Africa.

She says there's a good reason why.

"I think Africa is a more difficult place to travel," she says. "But I do plan to go to Africa. I'm just working up to it."

It's a common story among Chinese people bitten by the international travel bug, and tourism operators agree it's what they are increasingly hearing, too.

The latest figures from the China National Tourism Administration show that 1.895 million Chinese traveled to Africa in 2013, a massive 80.4 percent increase from 2012.

But while Africa currently only captures less than 2 percent of China's lucrative outbound tourist market annually, the growing confidence and experience of Chinese tourists has industry insiders and businesspeople banking on a big change in the near future.

According to those in the know, the continent should brace itself for a huge upsurge in tourism, because the Chinese are coming.

James Wu, the general manager of luxury travel agency UULUX, is among those who strongly believe a "golden age" of Chinese tourism in Africa is just around the corner.

"In the past three years, the number of tourists going overseas through UULUX has been growing by 120 percent annually," he says. "Most of our clients are seasoned travelers who have already visited the classic tourist destinations many times. They are very well-established, mostly in their 30s and 40s, and therefore want something special during their visit in another country. Africa is usually where people go after they have visited Southeast Asia, Europe and the US. As seasoned tourists grow, the number of travelers who go to Africa will increase as well. Though the number of tourists going to Africa accounts for only 1 percent of the whole number of outbound tourists, I believe that the golden age of Africa traveling is around the corner."

Wu says currently, the Ebola outbreak has put a dent in travel numbers to West Africa, but hasn't noticeably affected travel to other parts of the continent. The top five African destinations for Chinese travelers this year remain South Africa, Egypt, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Beyond the anecdotal, an increasing number of Chinese investors are spending big in Africa in anticipation of China's tourism boom.

Yang Jun, the chairman of the Qingdao-based Jin Yi Tong Group, says his company is branching out from construction machinery to invest $400 million in tourism ventures on two islands off Cape Verde in Africa.

"The (tourism) market there is already very big," he says. "The airline travel there is very convenient. The weather is very nice and it is like spring all the year round. It has very beautiful beaches and clear seawater. At present, it has about 600,000 tourists a year, mainly from Europe, but the country aims to make it 5.5 million people in three years, and many of them will come from China."

Sino Travel International Air Service Company, which since 2008 has turned a brisk trade providing tailor-made charters and bookings for predominately Chinese companies and business institutions, is also predicting an upsurge in tourism to Africa and are preparing for it.

Currently, 60 percent of their business is providing travel arrangements to more than 20 African countries, which translates to about 30,000 trips to and from Africa and China annually.

Sino Travel's Chairman, Zhan Chengbing, says the company is now exploring the possibility of opening dedicated tourism services in Africa that will sell flights, hotel bookings, rental cars and tours to inbound Chinese visitors.

With China already the fourth-largest country of origin for visitors to South Africa last year, Zhan believes the potential is there.

"The market is boundless," he says. "But it needs a lot more time to grow. It is promising."

Zhan says while the future for China-Africa tourism is looking bright in the long term, right now expensive airfares, limited airline capacity, and complicated and pricey visas are holding everything back.

Wu agrees.

"We would suggest that African countries should learn from Southeast Asian countries to simplify the (visa) process," he says.

Avid Chinese traveler Zheng Rui says price is definitely the biggest factor preventing him from journeying to Africa. The 31-year-old information technology worker, who has traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia, says he had planned to go on a trip to Africa but scrapped the idea after he priced it up.

"I planned to go to Kenya and Egypt last year," he says. "But the air ticket is quite expensive, and the local costs are quite expensive. For 10 days in Kenya, I needed about $3,000 for one person. It's double the price it costs to go to Europe. For me, with $5,000 I can have a great trip to Europe, but not in Africa. I'm not saying I can't afford it, I'm just saying I don't think it's worth the money, because I can spend the same amount of money but not get the same experience."

Both Zheng and Gong Jiayi also say concerns about personal safety and security are issues that have made them tentative about taking the leap and booking travel to Africa.

Wu says safety is a common concern among Chinese travelers, although he says in reality, Rome and Paris can be just as dangerous.

Deng Meijia, 17, recently traveled to Tanzania with classmates and teachers on a nine-day trip organized by the British School of Beijing.

She didn't find the country or the people frightening or threatening at all.

Deng says the group tour, which involved a safari, some cultural tourism and a few days of humanitarian outreach work, was an amazing experience that has left her wanting to return.

"I loved the local people," she says. "When people see you they wave at you and smile. Beijing is so polluted. It's different in Africa. You can see the blue sky. The air is clean. It's beautiful there."

Yang says the Chinese love of natural beauty, and Africa's abundance of it, were among the reasons his company Jin Yi Tong decided to invest in tourism there.

It's certainly a draw card for young professional, Gong says.

Rather than go it alone, she says she is considering traveling to Africa with a group for safety. What isn't up for debate is making the trip itself.

"I will visit Africa eventually," she says. "It may be with a group, or it may be with friends, but I will go."

Wang Chao and Chen Yingqun contributed to this story.

 Cultivating Chinese tourists' African dreams

Gong Jiayi, 27, on a trip to Greece. Photos Provided to China Daily

 Cultivating Chinese tourists' African dreams

Deng Meijia (second from right), 17, on a recent trip to Tanzania.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 11/28/2014 page9)

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