China grip on Aus travellers slips

Emerging destinations in Asia are stealing the thunder from China, with several operators reporting that Australians are increasingly overlooking China in favour of experiential tours in Vietnam, Myanmar and Japan.

001 The Li River Guilin - Photo courtesy Ken Duncan and Helen Wongs ToursEmerging destinations in Asia are stealing the thunder from China, with several operators reporting that Australians are increasingly overlooking China in favour of experiential tours in Vietnam, Myanmar and Japan.

Australian travellers have had a strong affinity with China over the years, with Australians comprising the top ten source markets for the best part of a decade. China slipped just outside of the top 10 in 2014, making 11th place with over 670,000 Australians. But with that figure slipping from around 770,000 arrivals in 2012, wholesalers and tour operators claim that China’s tourism sector is shifting in the eyes of Australian travellers.

China Travel Services business development manager Matthew Poon told travelBulletin that Australians’ eyes are wandering from the China mainland as their appetite for more “adventurous” destinations increases. And with the cost of travel to China continuing to rise, he said other destinations are stealing the limelight.

“China’s inbound Australia market was doing well for a number of years with the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai, but it’s a different market now and we are struggling to get the numbers up,” he said. 

Poon said price was driving Australians to competing countries, adding that most travellers do not perceive China as a repeat travel destination.

“While there are a lot of people who haven’t been to China, there is no big incentive to go back for people who have already visited Shanghai for instance,” he said. “China is slowing down.”

Wendy Wu Tours managing director Alan Alcock reported a similar trend, with growth for “mainstream” China tours slowing as interest for more unique itineraries increases. He also reported “significant growth” for India, Japan and lesser visited areas of South East Asia as consumers become more familiar with China.

“China has always been a strong growth destination for Wendy Wu Tours, but now instead of the year on year double digit growth we are used to, the last year has been low single numbers,” he told travelBulletin. “On the other hand, business to India is up almost 30% while business to Japan has more than doubled during the same period.”

Like Poon, he said familiarity with China was deflating arrivals figures as people seek out more unique experiences. “Consumers’ interests have changed and getting on and off a bus to look at things isn’t enough anymore,” he said.

Helen Wong’s Tours founder Helen Wong echoed the same sentiment and pointed to the China National Tourist Office for more targeted efforts to promote the destination’s historic and contemporary attributes.

“China has been targeted as a destination for some companies to offer holidays at ‘below cost’ which has created a great deal of confusion among customers as to what is the benchmark price of a tour.

“These ‘below cost’ deals have also created a great deal of angst among traditional wholesalers and a great deal of suspicion lies within these low cost deals. This has all eroded the market,” she said.

But China National Tourist Office (CNTO) strongly denies that China’s appeal is slipping and cited Tourism Research Australia figures showing that China was ranked as the sixth most popular destination for Australian outbound travellers in 2013 and 2014.

“China is still one of the most favourable destinations for Australians… and estimated trends show that China will still keep the popularity during the following years,” CNTO director Weijian Luo claimed.

He did not deny that some wholesalers have seen tour bookings taper off, but insisted that the trend was not related to the appeal of China as a destination. Instead, he claimed that the sluggish uptake was related to the dip in the Australian dollar which was “inevitably” increasing the cost of tours. He also pointed to “fierce competition” from online travel agents as another possible reason.

Luo also acknowledged that Australian wholesalers play a leading role in shaping China’s tourism industry and welcomed more input from wholesalers on how to find a “better solution” to attract more Australians to China. “CNTO is eager to build a stronger relationship with wholesalers to promote China in the future,” he said.

In response to Wu’s call for more intensive marketing efforts, CNTO said the organisation is ramping up its social media promotions, investing “heavily” in public media, and facilitating a range of promotional campaigns between airlines and wholesalers. CNTO also flagged plans to launch a China specialists training program to help agents improve their product knowledge of the destination.

“CNTO is willing to take any possible means to give agents more opportunities to know China well and enable them to sell it as a tourist destination to their clients,” he said.

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