World / China-Africa

In search of the missing Chinese tourists

By Lina Ayenew (China Daily Africa) Updated: 2014-11-28 11:22

Those in the African travel industry have more work to do to win over a new, lucrative market

It was 7:30 on a bright Wednesday morning at Bole International Airport in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. Among the numerous domestic flights that day was one to the ancient towns of Axum and Lalibela. As passengers were ushered through security, it was clear that most of the foreign tourists were middle-aged Europeans and Americans. Many were carrying well-worn travel guides and wearing khaki cargo pants and sun hats: the quasi-uniform for Western travelers venturing into rugged African destinations.

The Chinese were conspicuously absent. This seemed strange, given that their population in Ethiopia has skyrocketed in recent years. Unconfirmed estimates suggest there are between 40,000 and 70,000 Chinese nationals in Addis Ababa alone.

Suddenly, three young Chinese men appeared in the snaking line of impatient passengers. All seemed younger than 30. Asked if they were tourists, they replied, "No, no, no we are working on a construction project in the north of the country."

Ethiopia offers a wide selection of tourist attractions thanks to the country's long history, secluded cultures and natural beauty. Yet Chinese tourists are rarely seen visiting places such as Lalibela, a historic town where 11 rock-hewn churches, which are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are located.

Cheru, a seasoned travel guide turned hotel owner in Lalibela, says there are only a few Chinese nationals who come to visit the sites each year. Most of them, he says, do not seem to be particularly interested in these medieval churches but are keen to take advantage of the recently flourishing amenities such as the restaurants and other eateries. These Chinese visitors are more likely to be young workers who already live in Ethiopia, rather than leisure travelers on a well-planned holiday. The young workers are therefore unlikely to be generous with their spending and would probably lack appreciation for the significance of the historic sites.

So many Ethiopians in the travel industry, using the behavior of the few Chinese visitors they have hosted as their guides, are highly skeptical about Chinese tourists. Unfortunately, Chinese have been stereotyped as hard bargaining, business-oriented and not particularly curious about culture. Not many think of them as "tourist material".

This negative image of Chinese, is of course, unfair. It is also naive. Chinese account for 10 percent of international tourists worldwide. Their increasing disposable income and advancing average age means they have the time and the money for leisure travel. While Western countries are putting in a concerted effort to attract them, many African countries, including Ethiopia, lag behind in this tourism bonanza. In fact, reports indicate that only about 3 percent of the 47 million tourists who visit Africa each year are Chinese.

That small number raises the question: How do Africans entice rich Chinese tourists to come and appreciate the continent? This is an issue that the CEO of the Ethiopian Tourism Organization, Solomon Tadesse, hopes to resolve.

"We need to improve our infrastructure so as to provide comfort to our high-end tourists," he says. Infrastructure is indeed an issue. In Lalibela, as in the rest of the country, electricity blackouts are commonplace. Solomon is hopeful that the country will gradually erase these discomforts to do justice to the country's historical and cultural magnificence.

However, efforts to attract Chinese tourists should not be limited to infrastructure. Many African countries that have hosted Western tourists for decades believe that they can replicate their offerings and provide them to Chinese visitors. This is misguided thinking. What fascinates Chinese tourists could well be starkly different from what Westerners find interesting. Specially tailoring tour packages is critical.

Seyoum Abraha, the owner of Aiga Tour & Travel, understands this. His company focuses on attracting Asian tourists to Ethiopia, and it has hosted numerous Chinese visitors. He believes that the Chinese do not respond to religious sites as well as Europeans and Americans do. Ethiopia adopted Christianity in the fourth century, far ahead of many Western civilizations. As a result, the country boasts a range of ancient religious tourist attractions, including religious ceremonies and sites that are hundreds of years old. This impresses Westerners but does not readily resonate with Chinese, whose history is far-removed from Judeo-Christianity, he says.

He remembers an incident when he brought his Chinese tourists to Silassie Church in Addis Ababa, where a funeral procession was being held. Churches and graveyards are inseparable in Ethiopia, where many cathedrals also possess burial grounds for believers. Abraha's entire convoy of tourists stayed in the bus instead of venturing out, even though the entrance fee had been paid.

"This experience taught us that the Chinese are more averse to morbid experiences such as funerals, whereas Westerners are more curious about them," Abraha says. "So this was a good learning experience for us."

Beyond the development of tourism infrastructure and adjustment of offerings, marketing efforts are also essential. A survey of journalists working in China's leading travel magazines, including Lonely Planet, China Tourism News and Voyage, reveals that Chinese travelers are only familiar with a few African countries: Egypt, Kenya, Mauritius, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania and Tunisia. Ethiopia, which has the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa, is largely obscure to potential Chinese travelers. So marketing and public relations efforts are a must to familiarize Chinese tourists with the offerings of less well-known African destinations.

There are also challenges African destinations have to confront that are largely unforeseen. For example, the travel industry across the continent has suffered due to the outbreak of Ebola. Hilton Addis Ababa, one of the major hotel chains in Ethiopia, has had numerous cancellations as a result of the epidemic, even though the outbreak has been confined to West Africa.

Chinese tourists are definitely sensitive to health issues, and the number of their visits to the continent has fallen. Reports indicate that Kenya experienced a sharp decline in the number of Chinese tourists after the Ebola outbreak, as the peak season failed to match that of previous years.

Opportunities for African tourism are countless: Sandy beaches, animal migration and exotic cultures are only the tip of the iceberg. As countries everywhere increasingly court China's tourists, Africa should not lag behind. Chinese tourists deserve our full attention. After all, China can offer Africa much more than the construction of infrastructure or trade opportunities. It can also be Africa's largest source of tourism revenue.

The author is founder at Dalu Insights, an Africa-China marketing and research organization.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 11/28/2014 page1)

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