Chinese tourists in Australia: Our multi-billion dollar tourism goldmine dries up

At a time when there seems to be enough hot air invective emanating between Australia and China to hoist one of his balloons aloft, Kiff Saunders' optimism about the return of Chinese tourists is impressive.

Twenty years since Australia revelled in the prestige of being among the first Western nations to receive "Approved Destination Status" from the Chinese government, the greatest multi-billion dollar success story in Australian inbound tourism is in tatters and so, too, largely, is Mr Saunders' Melbourne-based Global Ballooning business.

Before travellers from China were barred from coming to Australia by the federal government due to coronavirus, 50 per cent of Global Ballooning's customers were drawn from the People's Republic with Mr Saunders employing up to 42 staff, including Mandarin speakers.

The pandemic, as Felicia Mariani, chief executive of the Victorian Tourism Industry Council, puts it, marks the end of a golden era of Australian tourism and with it the nation's single biggest source of international tourists.

But Mr Saunders is sanguine about the eventual restoration of the Chinese market.

"A lot of this is political and white noise," he says. "China is still the best tourism market for Australia."

Though any speedy recovery of in-bound Chinese tourism, which makes up $12.4 billion of the $45.4 billion international travellers bring in to the country, does seem unlikely thanks to potentially damaging warnings by the Chinese regime about levels of racism and safety in Australia.

Since Australia gained Approved Destination Status in 1999, many others followed, and there are now 140 countries and regions approved under the scheme, an illustration of how rapidly Chinese outbound tourism has expanded.

China's bellicosity has reinforced concerns that existed well before the pandemic that Australia's inbound tourism industry had become too dependent on a mercurial China rendering it vulnerable to global shocks or a deterioration in diplomatic relations with China, both of which have materialised.

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Mr Saunders says the growth in the Chinese market has been phenomenal. "It's like Japan was 30 years ago. But I just wish our government would stop flexing its muscles and find another issue to focus on," he says.

A former Tourism Australia executive says that when the world starts flying again there will be a need for tourism marketers to look to other countries more open to taking a holiday in Australia.

"There is clearly, unlike most other countries, an ability for the Chinese government to restrict travel here but I don't think it's sustainable or desirable for them in the long term," the former executive says.

"However even a 20 per cent drop in Chinese tourists to Australia would be significant considering the size of the market. Clearly there needs to be continued tourism focus on China. But in reality, deployment of marketing funds to increase the profile and desirability of the country has only a limited chance against government direction and air seat availability."

China has previously demonstrated its ability to use tourism as a weapon of protest. In 2017 it stopped many of its citizens from holidaying in South Korea after Seoul deployed a US-made anti-missile system on its border, resulting in a $US7 billion loss to the South Korean economy.

The authoritarian Chinese Government is able to wield such power because the country's travel distribution system in China is highly-regulated and so it's easier for the Government to control and monitor group travel, which still represents a large proportion of the Chinese outbound travel industry.

Although federal tourism minister Senator Simon Birmingham has called on Australian exporters reliant on China to diversify their markets in light of ongoing tensions with the world's second biggest economy, he says Tourism Australia, the nation's tourism marketing body, will not shy away from China as our number one source for foreign tourists.

"Once international travel restrictions are lifted, we will be resuming campaign activities in China as we will in our other key markets," he says. "We need to get international visitors flowing into our tourism regions and supporting our tourism businesses."

Global Ballooning's Kiff Saunders has no regrets in investing in heavily in the Chinese market. He has worked closely with Tourism Australia, which he praises for its successful marketing efforts in generating record numbers of Chinese visitors.

"Name me a replacement market for China?" he says. "I can't see one except for perhaps India. China is a tourism market for Australia that ticks all of the boxes. I would miss tourists from China if they didn't return and not just in a business sense because they're enthusiastic and love to travel and can do things in Australia, like ballooning, that they can't at home."

Despite Chinese tourists accounting for 20 per cent of visitors to Featherdale Sydney Wildlife Park before COVID-19, Sara Ang, the zoo's sales and marketing manager, also remains optimistic. She believes the domestic market will fill part of the gap left by overseas tourists.

Featherdale intends to work with Australian-based Chinese-speaking tour operators and guides who once brought Chinese tourists to the park to actively target local Chinese-Australians as well as Chinese students.

Sangkyun Kim, an associate professor of tourism at the school of business and law at Western Australia's Edith Cowan University believes that in the aftermath of the pandemic there will be a greater opportunity to market Australia as a clean, green and safe destination. These are qualities, he says, that will be attractive to tourists beyond China, including his native Korea.

"Australia is still a popular destination positively perceived by many other Asian nations. Post COVID-19, it is anticipated that tourists will be smarter, slower, more thorough and careful," he says. "If they have to travel, it is obvious it is more likely they will choose a safe destination like Australia."

Senator Birmingham says the federal government will be emphasising to the world "that our success and capacity to manage COVID-19 has not only made us a safe country for Australians but also for visitors from other nations, including from China".

For now, at least, the issue remains academic as neighbours Australia and New Zealand struggle to open their borders to each other, let alone other nations, while the tourism industry looks to the domestic market to fill the massive foreign visitor gap.

Yet before long governments and the industry will need to address whether it will be ever again be possible, or allowed, to entice almost 1.5 million Chinese back Down Under.

See also: Why we need Chinese tourists less than we think

See also: Why our COVID-19 success is a blessing and a curse for tourism

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