China leaps forward on our must-see list

Visitor numbers have spiked since the Shanghai Expo started, confirming the mainland is a magnet for Australian travellers.

WHO would have thought so many people would travel halfway across the world to attend a trade fair?

The popularity of Expo 2010 in Shanghai has taken many in the travel industry by surprise, proving a bigger boon for tourism than the Beijing Olympics.

Australian visitor numbers to China have spiked since the expo began in May and the benefits are expected to continue well past it closing at the end of this month.

"It's been a crazy success," says the managing director of Discover Asia, Trevor Lake. "I think it has caught a lot of people off guard.

"I'm really surprised to see how many Australians are going up there; I've never really associated Australians with trade fairs.

"It's mucking about our normal bookings a bit ... we can't get any accommodation in Shanghai."

Australian tourist arrivals to China were up nearly 33 per cent in June when compared with the previous year and anecdotal evidence suggests demand has continued in subsequent months.

Lake says the 2008 Olympics were a tourism "disaster", with the Chinese government taking over all the accommodation and visitor numbers falling well short of expectations, while Expo 2010 has been quietly achieving big things.

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Many people are travelling to Shanghai for the expo and then adding on other tours or travel around China, he says.

The owner of Helen Wong's Tours, Helen Wong, agrees the expo has been a bigger event than the Olympics in tourism and marketing terms.

Wong says the benefits of Olympic exposure were lost in the global financial crisis, while the expo has generated plenty of interest and visitors.

Cities such as Hangzhou and Suzhou, which are close to Shanghai, have been particularly popular with expo travellers, she says.

Intrepid Travel says it has seen a lot of interest in China as a result of the expo.

The company's best-selling China trip has been a nine-day tour originating in Shanghai.

Wong says Australian visitor numbers to China are not quite back to the "brilliant year" of 2007, before the Olympics and the GFC, but they could get there during the upcoming peak travel period.

Official figures show more than 50,000 Australian tourists are travelling to China each month, although these figures may include a significant amount of "visiting friends and relatives" (VFR) traffic.

Australia represents one of China's biggest markets outside Asia, ahead of countries with much larger populations such as Germany and Britain.

There is also evidence that China is only just getting started in the tourism stakes.

Figures from hotel industry consultancy STR Global show China accounts for more than half of hotel rooms scheduled for construction in the Asia-Pacific region.

China has more than 138,000 rooms in the "active pipeline", according to the data, compared with about 46,000 for the next-busiest market, which is India. The Sheraton hotel brand alone says it will open eight new hotels in China before the year is out, with a further 18 to open by 2015.

Jetstar says it has identified China as a major growth market.

The carrier has a determined strategy to develop its services to mainland China, using its Singapore hub, and has aspirations to introduce direct services from Australia.

"We certainly think we could make an Australia-China service work," says a spokesman for the airline, Simon Westaway.

Jetstar began operating to mainland China in December with services to Haikou, followed by services to Shantou in February. These are in addition to services to three destinations in greater China: Taipei, Hong Kong and Macau.

Westaway says Jetstar's traffic to China is primarily leisure travellers and VFR passengers.

"We're gearing up for a harder sell on our China services," Westaway says. "We're going to do a lot more work in this area because we see a lot of opportunity.

"Our existing services are performing to expectation ... that's given us some confidence to do more."

Qantas has also identified China as a possible future route to Europe, if it can secure the necessary rights.

The airline plans to develop a series of hubs in Asia and is hopeful China will be one of them.

Seen the Wall, what next?

HELEN WONG predicts the Sichuan and Henan provinces will be the "new" areas for visitors to China. Wong says the Henan province (not to be confused with Hunan) in central-northern China is the home of Chinese martial arts and has a wealth of history. "Come into this area and you can see 5000 years of history," she says. The Sichuan province, in south-western China, offers both scenery and ancient cultures. Wong says Jiuzhaigou Valley has landscapes like the Canadian Rockies but is mainly occupied by Tibetans.

jane@janeefraser.com.au

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