There couldn't have been a greater contrast in the relations between China and the US and China and Australia this week. While President-elect Donald Trump is set to spend 2017 and beyond poking the dozy Chinese panda with a noticeably large and sharp stick, Australia is, officially, planning to spend the next 12 months stroking it.
The Year of the Rooster, to add yet another creature to the mix, in 2017 is also going to be the Year of the Two Bears – the panda and the koala - with the Chinese and Australian governments having this week declared it "China-Australia Year of Tourism", beginning on January 1.
While such official years of tourism can be a gratuitous yuan a dozen in Asia, the China-Australia Year of Tourism 2017 is actually imbued with a semblance of meaning and timeliness, no less considering the contrasting tense relations between China and the US, as well as a host of other factors.
The China-Australia year also coincides with the second golden age of Australian tourism – the first being the formative "shrimp on the barbie" era - with the number of Chinese visitors to Australia now totalling almost 1.2 million, up more than 20 per cent on a year ago. Next year will almost certainly see New Zealand, traditionally Australia's largest tourism market, surpassed for the first time by China.
Although we only receive 1.5 per cent or so of all Chinese tourists travelling abroad, the numbers are sufficient to have dramatically boosted record inbound tourism numbers and economic benefit for Australia. Chinese tourists, after all, are set to contribute $13 billion to the national economy by 2020, up from the $9 billion contribution today.
The tourism industry's total contribution to Australia's gross domestic product is now almost $53 billion with one in 20 Australians, or a total of 580,000 of us, now employed directly in tourism-related jobs.
Really, with such growth in Chinese tourism Down Under, James Packer could conceivably build his controversial Barangaroo hotel in Sydney sans a high-rollers casino and still make a tidy profit. Furthermore, the Year of the Two Bears, is an opportune moment to reflect on why Chinese tourists really are good for us (and why we should take care when wielding a Trump-like big stick).
BETTER HOTELS, RESORTS AND ATTRACTIONS
The corollary of this extraordinary growth in visitors from China is that there is, and will be, a greater need for more, and hopefully superior infrastructure and investment in order to meet the demand. The rise and rise of Chinese tourism to Australia may also serve as a catalyst in finally addressing Australian service standards.
These standards can tend to be excellent to world-class in our top restaurants but sometimes average-to-poor in our hotels and resorts. But, whatever the case, more infrastructure means more choice and quality for the growing ranks of Australian domestic travellers, as well as for Chinese and other foreign visitors.
BETTER AIR LINKS TO CHINA AND THE WORLD
Thanks to the boom in Chinese tourists there now are more Chinese airlines flying to and from Australia than any other nation. Each year more than 720,000 Australians visit China, which, of course, the China National Tourist Office would like to see grow.
For Australian travellers, with seven (more if you count Hong Kong) carriers flying here, it means more choice of airlines and greater affordability, with the standards of Chinese carriers steadily improving. Chinese cities – of which 13 have direct links to Australia – have emerged as major and viable hubs to Europe and elsewhere.
"You can now fly direct to [and from] Australia from more than a dozen different cities in mainland China and the level of recent aviation activity gives you a pretty good indication of how the major Chinese airlines see future demand." says John O'Sullivan, managing director of Tourism Australia.
"Many of these new flights are from China's secondary cities – places such as Kunming, Hangzhou and Wuhan - effectively opening up parts of China which are, as yet, largely untapped for us."
BETTER STOPOVER OPTIONS
An impediment to visiting China in the past has been the somewhat cumbersome visa process but Australians can now utilise a generous visa-free transit policy which have seen conditional stays in Shanghai, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang increased from 72-hours to up to 144 hours (or six days). This makes Chinese cities, at the very least, a viable stopover option to Europe.
"Many Australians view China through the prism of our trade in goods and commodities," says Luo Weijan, director of the China National Tourist Office in Australia, "but China is much more than just an economic powerhouse. We have rich and diverse ethnic groups, different cuisines [and] breathtaking scenery."
From the inevitable self-interested Australian economic standpoint, O'Sullivan also points out that the introduction earlier this month of a 10-year multi-entry visas for Chinese tourists should also give a significant boost to repeat visits by Chinese tourism and the incentive to explore areas beyond Australia's main urban attractions such as in regional areas.
BETTER CHINESE FOOD
Okay. So this one is a bit of a long shot. But Chinese cuisine, and standards of service in Chinese restaurants, in Australia has generally been in the doldrums for years. Food plays a central part in the lives of the Chinese and it's no less important to them when they travel abroad.
The growth in Chinese tourist numbers may finally encourage more regionally-focused Chinese restaurants here that will benefit both Chinese and Australian foodies alike, as well as generate more employment in the hospitality segment.
Fortunately, according to research by Tourism Australia, the perception of the quality of Australian food (and not just Chinese cuisines) among tourists to China from Australia is greater after they've visited here, impressed as they are by the freshness, quality and diversity of our local produce.
Anthony Dennis is Fairfax Media's national travel editor, traveller.com.au
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