From Shanghai to the surf coast, it's the new China road

A surge in Chinese visitors is changing the face of the Australian tourism industry.

THE Chinese are coming. Last year, 70,000 headed to the Ballarat goldfields, following a path their compatriots trod 160 years ago as they raced to the diggings. But these days they're not looking for wealth - they're bringing it.

As China's economy booms, its new middle class is exploring the globe, creating a tourism bonanza. Australia already has a stake in this boom. China is the most lucrative slice of the Australian tourism market, worth more than $3 billion and involving close to half a million visitors last year. The numbers are tipped to grow - by one estimate, revenue could nearly treble in 10 years.

This creates a blend of opportunities, challenges and risks for the local tourism industry.

One risk, say industry insiders, is that tourism operators won't keep up with rapidly changing expectations of Chinese

Another is that the industry is still tainted by dodgy operators running group tours that are little more than forced shopping trips. An immediate challenge for the industry is understanding what and who it is dealing with.

"We all have our views of what we think Chinese visitors want," says Felicia Mariani, managing director of the Australian Tourism Export Council. "But I'm not really sure we understand what they want and I think that's a really big challenge for us."

Last year, 57 million Chinese travelled overseas. Of these, 454,000 came here - 24 per cent more than in 2009 - contributing $3.26 billion to the Australian economy. By 2020, the federal government predicts 860,000 Chinese visitors will come, contributing between $7 billion and $9 billion.

Responding to this growth, the federal government and Tourism Australia have released a strategy to secure Australia's share.

The priority is to know the customer. The strategy makes clear that the stereotype of the Chinese traveller - an unadventurous group tourist interested only in shopping - is dated. Australia's targets are well-off couples "who have an independent travel mindset and want to explore and experience local culture".

The strategy stresses the need to ensure travellers have "quality Australian experiences", acknowledging "instances where visitor expectations are not met" - particularly in group tours and shopping trips. This is a reference to rackets run by tour operators whose itineraries and accommodation don't match promises. Concern over the potential damage to the industry prompted the federal government to regulate operators in 2005.

But a government newsletter in April reported an increase in incidents where itineraries didn't meet regulations, where travellers weren't allowed to shop by themselves, and where they weren't told that operators received commissions from shop owners.

Ms Mariani warns Australia can't risk repeating mistakes made with Japanese tourists, when it was assumed they were only interested in shopping and group travel.

Jeremy Johnson, chief executive of Sovereign Hill in Ballarat and chairman of the Victoria Tourism Industry Council, says Australia offered Japanese tourists cheap experiences that meant the market didn't develop.

While Chinese still largely travelled in groups, this would change rapidly. "In eight to 10 years' time we will be getting people from China who might have already been to 10 other countries. This will be a far more mature market, with higher expectations," Mr Johnson said.

Rose Yong, chairwoman of Extragreen Holidays in Melbourne, brought her first Chinese group to Victoria in 1994.

"The older generation needs fully guided tours," she says. "The younger people move around independently. They know how to choose for themselves, they're wealthy."

Ms Mariani says Chinese travellers were looking for "more deep and meaningful ways to connect with the destination".

They want big city experiences, and shopping and visiting casinos remain high on the list. But they also want "unique, money-can't-buy experiences", involving contact with Australian culture, landscape and history.

Victoria should be well-placed to benefit from the boom. Tourism Victoria figures show that 206,000 Chinese visited the state last year, a 26 per cent increase on 2009. They spent $685 million. Already, 19 per cent of Chinese coming to Victoria are defined as "experience seekers" - travellers who are informed and curious about their destinations.

Mr Johnson says there are things we could do better. One is to improve the food in hotels and restaurants used by tour operators.

"For Chinese, food is a destination in itself," says Mr Johnson.

Another issue is the need for more signage in Chinese and better cultural awareness training for the industry. Simple things can be misunderstood, says Mr Johnson. "For instance, Chinese aren't used to blond children. So they might touch them or pose with them for photos. We mightn't understand this, but it's not a threat, it's just a sense of wonderment. Understanding who we're dealing with can be as simple as that."