Tourism Australia's plan to whet China's appetite

Tourism Australia is betting on China’s enduring love affair with food and wine as a way to entice more Chinese tourists to travel down under.

Huge billboards featuring pictures of Australian lobsters, Tasmanian sparkling brut and fresh oysters are gracing Shanghai subway stations and busy shopping malls -- the public face of Tourism Australia’s $10 million marketing blitz in China.

The country is the focal point for tourism marketers around the world. Europeans are peddling their history and magnificent cathedrals while the Kiwis are campaigning on their hugely successful Pure New Zealand brand. Tourism Australia, the country’s peak industry marketing body, is betting on China’s enduring love affair with food and wine as a way to entice more Chinese tourists to travel Down Under.

Tourism Australia’s managing director John O’Sullivan says that extensive consumer research underpins the latest ‘Restaurant Australia’ campaign targeting Chinese food lovers. “For the last three years, the most persistent take out for us has been that people travel for great food and wine experiences,” he told China Spectator.

“It is not necessarily sitting at a five-star restaurant, it is about the produce that goes into it. We know people are travelling on their stomachs.”     

A big part of the Restaurant Australia campaign is designed to address a big perception problem of Australian food in China. While this country is known for its spectacular scenery, rugged coastlines and famous beaches, Chinese consumers don’t usually think of Australia as a place to have the ultimate dining experience.

For Chinese consumers who have not visited the country before, only 28 per cent of respondents surveyed think Australia offers good food, wine, local cuisine and produce. France and Italy are streets ahead with 68 per cent and 49 per cent positive responses. Even Mexico is ranked ahead of Australia.

However, the picture changes dramatically once Chinese consumers actually get a chance to travel to Australia and experience the food and wine here. Survey results show 76 per cent of respondents who have visited Australia think the country has great food and wine, making Australia the country that offers the best culinary experience.

Sullivan says there is a perception issue. “The Restaurant Australia campaign is designed to tap into this growing trend of international travel around food and wine,” he said.  

As part of the campaign, Tourism Australia has invited 86 influential food bloggers, writers and critics to come to Australia -- ten of them from the Greater China region. The Chinese group includes a TV cooking show hostess, the judge of Master Chef China, and editors of travel magazines.

Sullivan says these 86 food critics have an estimated 400 million followers and their opinions matters. “There is a collection of people worldwide that have got a cult following such as A.A.Gill, the Sunday Times’ restaurant reviewer,” he said.

China is getting a lot of attention from Tourism Australia, it is by far the largest market with the highest yield per customer. But the Tourism Australia chief is adamant the country needs to maintain a balanced portfolio.

“In the 1980s and 90s, we were too exposed to the Japanese market. It really hits places like Cairns, and to a lesser extent, the Gold Coast,” he said. The good news is that while the Asian market is booming; traditional markets such as Europe, Britain and the United States are also rebounding.

Visitors from mature markets such as Germany are important, because they are often repeat visitors and they tend to go to regional Australia instead of major cities on the east coast like Sydney and Melbourne.

At the moment, Australia’s tourism market is at a kind of equilibrium in terms of the number of tourists coming from emerging Asian markets and traditional markets such as Europe and the United States. But China is still the single most important market bringing in $5.3 billion a year, up 16 per cent from last year.

Over the longer term, Tourism Australia expects the country to welcome more than one million visitors from China every year for the first time by 2016-17, with the potential for it to be worth as much as $13 billion.  

The marketing body is also repositioning itself for a different kind of Chinese tourism market after Beijing outlawed coercive shopping tours after consumers complained bitterly about their nasty experiences abroad -- especially in Hong Kong.

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 with close connections to tour operators.  

However, the new trend is for more affluent consumers to travel independently outside of these tour groups. Tourism Australia is enlisting the help of an elite network of 31 specialist travel agencies to promote Australia to key Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and tier two cities such as Nanjing.

These key agents will also get special treatment in terms of easier visa application process for their clients. They can lodge their forms electronically and get a quicker response. Australia’s key competitors such as the United States and New Zealand have all introduced easier visa process to lure more Chinese tourists.

Peter Cai travelled to China as a guest of Tourism Australia.

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