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New destination

Updated: 2013-07-26 09:51
By Hu Haiyan and Zheng Xin ( China Daily)

New destination

African tourism on a high as arrivals from China grow at a steady pace

Though her business has been growing with a steady trickle of Chinese coming to Africa, Yuan Wei feels that the real tipping point will occur when more business travelers from China start coming to the continent.

Yuan, founder and general manager of Walk Through Africa Tours (WHAT), one of the earliest Chinese travel agencies in Cape Town, South Africa, says that increased business exchanges between China and other African nations should be a sweet spot for business tourism on the continent.

Explaining her assumption that business travelers would drive future tourist traffic, Yuan says her business grew considerably after President Xi Jinping's visit to South Africa earlier this year.

"Our business has also gained from the close ties between China and South Africa. Xi's visit opened several new areas of cooperation for Chinese and African businesses. We will definitely make every effort to grasp the opportunities that arise from such cooperation," she says.

Though she was unable to speak English or any African language when she first came to Cape Town in 2001, Yuan says she decided to stay and test her luck in the African tourism industry.

"Over the years, my experiences have completely changed the perceptions that I had about Africa and its people. Before I went to Africa, I knew little about the continent and thought it was a place full of riots, poverty and disease. Yet my experiences have taught me otherwise. South Africa itself was an eye-opener. It is a country with a highly developed road system and has been strongly influenced by European civilizations."

Based in Cape Town, WTAT mainly provides business travel services to Chinese and South African people. Realizing the huge untapped potential in business tourism, Yuan has opened offices in Namibia and Tanzania and will soon expand to Botswana and Zambia.

"Western Africa is still unfamiliar to many Chinese businesses and tourists. It is a great pity as the region is extremely picturesque," she says.

"We will make every effort to live up to our name - Walk Through Africa Tours - by providing really unique experiences for business travelers."

 New destination

A tour guide from Kenya China Travel and Tours speaks to Chinese tourists in Nairobi. Provided to China Daily

New destination

Diverse attractions

Indeed Africa, with its diverse tourist attractions, ranging from wildlife, beaches, safaris and cultural heritage, is fast becoming the destination of choice for ordinary and well-heeled Chinese tourists, who are seeking exotic holiday experiences.

According to statistics provided by the China Tourism Academy, there were 83.18 million outbound tourists from China last year and of these nearly 1.05 million visited African nations. Though that number accounted for just 1.26 percent of the total outbound Chinese tourists, the number of those visiting Africa recorded a 3.8 percent year-on-year growth. The number of Chinese tourists visiting African countries for sightseeing purposes is estimated to exceed 1.15 million by the end of this year, according to the academy.

Popular African destinations like Kenya, South Africa and Egypt saw a breathtaking increase in the number of Chinese tourists, says Dai Bin, president of the China Tourism Academy.

More than 132,300 Chinese tourists visited South Africa in 2012, a 56 percent year-on-year increase. Kenya, which has done a lot of tourism promotion in China recently, and even teamed up with CCTV to promote its destinations, saw nearly 41,300 visitors, a 10.4 percent growth over 2011.

Egypt, another important tourism destination, received 32,000 Chinese visitors in 2012, a 23 percent year-on-year increase, Dai says.

According to Dai, Africa's rich natural resources and increasing cooperation with China in various fields has spurred more business trips and official visits.

Zhang Lingyun, deputy head of the Tourism Institute of Beijing Union University, says Africa's natural beauty, safari experience and its ancient culture in nations like Egypt have all been big draws for Chinese tourists.

"Most of the Chinese visitors to Africa are financially well-off individuals, like executives, who have been to many other countries and are looking forward to new adventures," Zhang says.

Many Chinese companies, including some big state-owned enterprises like Sinopec, have also been expanding their business in Africa, thereby giving a fillip to the local tourism industry.

"The (business trips) accounts for a substantial proportion of travel between China and African countries," says Yang Jinsong, a professor in international tourism at the China Tourism Academy.

Dun Jidong, the marketing manager of travel services provider Ctrip Beijing, says Chinese tourists are no longer satisfied with traditional trips to Southeastern countries, Europe and the US and look for something different when they travel to Africa.

Ctrip, the largest air-ticketing agency in China, says that though it processed more than 1.5 million tourists last year, the number of such people heading for Africa accounted for less than 5 percent.

"Although the number is not that big now, we anticipate a huge increase as more Chinese tourists become aware of Africa and its attractions," Dun says.

The rapid development of air links between China and African countries is also adding impetus to the growth in tourist traffic. In addition to the three traditional tourism destinations in Africa - Kenya, South Africa and North African countries including Morocco and Egypt, many Chinese visitors are now planning trips to southern African nations.

"Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and nations like Mauritius and Namibia have all attracted a lot of Chinese interest in recent years, with the grand safari and other world-class attractions," Yang says.

Link factor

Many domestic travel agencies, South African carriers and tourist agencies are now working on detailed market segmentation to better meet the growing demand.

Zhang Jian, the general manager of Air Mauritius China, which is the only airline from Mauritius that operates direct flights to China, says Mauritius attaches great importance to Chinese tourist arrivals and wants to tap this market further. Earlier this month, Air Mauritius launched another direct flight from Beijing to Mauritius to attract more Chinese passengers.

"The tourism industry in Mauritius has benefited a lot from the direct flights between Mauritius and China. Earlier Chinese tourists had to stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for connecting flights. The process was inconvenient and expensive," Zhang says, adding that following the direct flights the number of Chinese tourists to Mauritius has increased to 20,000.

"The direct flights from Shanghai to Mauritius that started in January this year will give further impetus. We expect the number of Chinese visitors to be around 40,000 by the end of this year."

Kenya China Travel and Tours Ltd, the largest travel agency in Kenya, has recently opened an office in Beijing to attract more Chinese tourists to Kenya and other African destinations like Egypt and Tanzania.

Zhang Yuanxiang, the founder and general manager of the agency, says it expects to receive about 15,000 Chinese visitors by 2015, compared with 8,000 in 2012. Last year, the company achieved sales revenue of about $10 million.

"It is certain that there will be a huge increase in the number of Chinese visitors to Africa, but the key for travel agencies is to grasp this opportunity," he says.

Based on data provided by Tu Niu Travel, a domestic travel service company, the number of visitors from Beijing booking a Kenya trip has witnessed a year-on-year increase of 60 percent, while sales have grown by over 80 percent.

Yet there are other challenges on the horizon that impede the growth of Chinese tourists.

Zhang with Kenya China Travel and Tourist Ltd says many Chinese travel agencies are unfamiliar with African tourist sites.

"US and European travel agencies have been present in Africa for over 100 years. Chinese travel agencies entered the market only 30 years ago and hence it is normal for them to lag behind their US and EU counterparts in terms of travel route," Zhang says.

He says that to bridge the gap his company has employed many local employees, who contribute a lot to designing tourist routes.

"Out of our 100 employees, only 20 are Chinese while the rest are locals," Zhang adds.

As one of the founders of the Kenya-China Friendship Association, Zhang plans to host a series of activities called Kenya Day in China in September to attract more tourists.

 New destination

Zhang Yuanxiang, founder of Kenya China Travel and Tours, poses with local people in Nairobi. Zhang says his company expects to receive about 15,000 Chinese visitors by 2015. Provided to China Daily

Challenges ahead

Although the tourism industry in Africa has developed a lot in recent years, it still lags behind developed regions like Europe and the US. It is at a primary development stage with great potential and still has many undiscovered tourist attractions, say analysts.

The first challenge in making African tourism sustainable comes from the relatively unstable political environment, Zhang says.

"In 2007 when general elections were held in Kenya, our business nose-dived as many Chinese tourists were not willing to visit due to the fear of riots."

Yang admits that safety is the most important concern for Chinese tourists in Africa.

"I was in Kenya in 2010 and have made frequent visits to several other African countries since then, and the situation is not as bad as we thought," he says. "Many think that Africa is a continent filled with riots and revolts. The reason is that most tourists have never been to Africa nor seen the high-end hotels and developed shopping areas that are coming up."

At the same time, African countries also need to do more promotion by using new media to mitigate the security concerns of Chinese tourists, Yang says.

"Weibo for example, (China's version of Twitter, a micro-blogging platform), is a good method to promote the beautiful scenery and mystique of the continent," he says.

Li Hewei, manager of the marketing department for Africa and Middle East Tourism at Hua Yuan International Travel, a company focused on outbound tourism, says that many of the African countries are not well developed economically and a lot of work needs to be done to improve infrastructure, a factor that limits the growth of the tourism industry.

"In Kenya for example, the demand for hotels located in the country is far beyond supply and often the tourists have to reserve the hotels well in advance or book safaris for the subsequent year," Li says. "In addition, there is also a shortage of tour guides speaking Chinese, and we often have to book at least three months in advance during the peak season to ensure tour quality."

The company has been developing tourism in African countries for more than 10 years and says the Africa market has always been a core business.

Of all the outbound tourists the company received last year, those heading for Africa accounted for 8 percent, a year-on-year growth of 10 percent. Total revenue from the African market last year was around 8 percent, Li says.

"With consumers becoming more familiar with countries like South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Namibia, the prospects for African tourism are extremely good," Li says.

Huang Yimin, the founder and general manager of Beijing Feimay International Travel Service, says getting visas is more inconvenient for Chinese heading to Africa than those traveling to Europe.

For instance, visitors can travel to all Schengen countries in Europe as long as they get approval from one nation, says Huang, while they have to apply for individual visas to visit African countries.

"This is a deterrent as many Chinese tourists prefer to visit more than one nation," says Huang who has been in the tourism industry for over 11 years.

Despite these concerns, Africa's amazing culture and splendid landscape keep attracting more Chinese tourists, he says.

"Based on its rich travel resources ranging from vineyards to deserts, tropical forests to beaches, Africa can carter to demands from all kinds of Chinese tourists," Huang says.

Although the company focuses on introducing Chinese tourists to developed regions such as the EU and US, it regards the African market as a new and fast-developing growth engine "that is very important and critical", Huang says.

He says that though the company began to tap Chinese tourists for African business only three years ago it still expects a huge increase.

Of the 20,000 outbound visitors the travel agency handled last year, the number of tourists heading for Africa was about 700, "a small portion yet with big potential", Huang says.

Yang, from the China Tourism Academy, says there has been a steady improvement in infrastructure construction in Africa.

The South African government is spending several billion dollars to upgrade airports, railways and major roads. It is also developing rapid-transit systems to deliver fans to the stadiums around the country, Yang says.

"The tourism potential in Africa would be enhanced further if African nations can come up with more tourism products, including routes, souvenirs and accommodation, all custom-made for Chinese tourists. Chinese tourists love purchasing souvenirs and local handicrafts while traveling abroad," Yang says.

Zhang, from the Tourism Institute of Beijing Union University, says factors like poor transport, limited capacity in handling tourists and less developed medical conditions, have also held back many visitors, especially the aged.

"China has taken some 30 years since reform and opening-up to improve its infrastructure facilities to better receive foreign tourists, and African countries can follow the same path," Zhang says.

Contact the writers at huhaiyan@chinadaily.com.cn and zhengxin@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily Africa Weekly 07/26/2013 page1)

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