For years tour groups formed the backbone of Chinese tourists visiting Australia. They followed a simple pattern: visiting sites in chartered buses and shopping at certain stores and establishments with close connections to tour operators.
This cosy arrangement ended last October when the Chinese government outlawed coercive shopping tours after tourists complained bitterly about their nasty experiences abroad, especially in Hong Kong. There are reports of abusive tour guides who unleash expletives on tourists who are not interested in shopping.
The number of Chinese tourists to Australia plummeted 9.4 per cent in November -- a month after the new law was introduced -- sending shivers through the tourism sector, which relies on China for growth.
Tourism Australia is adjusting its strategy to counter the decline in numbers of tour groups visiting Australia. Even more importantly, it wants to position Australia to ride the new wave in Chinese outbound tourism as China’s affluent middle classes start to value experiences over shopping.
In an interview with China Spectator, Tourism Australia managing director John O’Sullivan reveals China is going to the single most important market for Australia in an increasingly competitive global market and can be worth as much as $13 billion by the end of this decade.
The new focus is on free and independent travellers in the aftermath of new Chinese tourism law. “We knew that as a part of anti-corruption crackdown in China that the government would introduce the new law,” he says.
“Traditionally the Chinese tourism market had been built in Australia around tour groups. There are still a number of tour groups that come to Australia,” he says. However, there has been a shift in their style of travel with more coming to Australia as independent travellers rather than in tour groups.
O’Sullivan says a big shift away from lower yielding group travel to more free and independent travel is an important trend and to capture this lucrative market Tourism Australia is enlisting the help of an elite network of 31 specialist travel agencies to promote Australia in key Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and tier two cities such as Nanjing.
“The vast majority of international travel out of China is still booked through travel agencies, and under this program we believe we’ve identified the best of the best,” he says.
Food and wine is one of the key selling points for Australia. “We know food and wine is a big driver for Chinese tourists. The fact that we have great produce here, it is very safe, it is very fresh and it is what they are looking for,” he told China Spectator.
However, there is a perception gap. Tourism Australia research shows that the Chinese rate Australian food and wine behind France and Italy. However, the rating changes dramatically once Chinese tourists actually experience Australian produce.
In fact, Chinese tourists who have visited Australia rate our food and wine as the best in the world. But for people who have not been to Australia, our reputation lags behind not only France and Italy but also Brazil, Hawaii and Mexico.
Tourism Australia will soon launch a new campaign to bridge this perception gap in China later this year to showcase the best wine and food the country has to offer.
Using social media is also a key element of Tourism Australia’s marketing strategy globally and especially in China. “In recent years, our whole marketing has been built very strongly around social media,” he says. “The over-arching reason has been that we know the power of advocacy and particularly in a market like China.
“Advocacy is in many ways as important as paid advertising because we know Chinese tourists take words of mouth and referrals from people who they know as being a key driver of choice and influence.”
Tourism Australia has a large presence on social media including six million Facebook followers, 800,000 on Instagram and 200,000 Twitter followers across its various accounts. It also boasts 350,000 fans on Weibo, a Twitter-like micro-blog social media platform in China.
Like many industries in Australia, tourism sector is also heavily exposed to China with 18 per cent of tourism-related revenue coming from the Chinese. But when asked if Australia depends too heavily on China, O’Sullivan says it is an “important market, but we take a portfolio approach”.
“We also spend significant amount of money in regions such as Southeast Asia, the US and Britain,” he says. “Our approach has been very much about ensuring that we don’t just rely on one market.”
Though Tourism Australia is not putting all its eggs in the China basket, it is still worth noting that China is Australia’s most valuable market at $5 billion -- the fastest growing market and also the highest yield market.