The FINANCIAL — Chinese have travelled the world long before steam ships and aircrafts were invented. They were traders, taking with them to far flung lands, their silk, gun powder which they invented, and potent medicine derived from herbs, rhino horns, various insects and much more.
They were the pioneers who settled down in most towns and cities, mingled with the locals, inter-married and indeed laid the foundations for the China Towns that we see in most cities of the world, from London to Sydney, from Amsterdam to Frankfurt, from Copenhagen to Brussels.
Under the rule of the Emperors, China was moving overseas and populating a large part of Asia with significant Chinese population: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand as well as Singapore which parted ways with Federal Malaysia to form its predominantly Chinese society and Hong Kong, ceded to the British and regained later.
Then came the clamp down with Mao Tse Tung’s revolution and the unification of China, the Cultural Revolution, denial of access to anything foreign – from languages to inland and overseas travels. China, for a very long time, remained bottled up in its own culture, traditions, cuisine, mores and its own communist philosophy and outlook until one day, under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, China decided to take a right turn to social capitalism. Within a short span of less than 30 years since then, China has opened up the flood gates of tourism, for both foreign visitors and its own people travelling overseas. Chinese tourism industry is a strong statement of freedom to travel and reinforces the nation’s ability and desire to engage with other cultures, a far cry from the dark days of the Cultural Revolution under Mao Tse Tung when Chinese were imprisoned or sent to hardship labour camps for showing any form of “ foreign, imperialist decadence”.
Number of Chinese tourists, especially those travelling overseas, to exotic lands cities, have been steadily increasing. Last year, 56 million Chinese travelled overseas. Most of them were high spenders on luxury holidays, splurging billions – $ 7.5 billion in just one month of January alone – while the same number of foreign visitors arrived in China. That number is more than the entire population of Great Britain. With thousands of travel agents entering the China market, with more and more airlines flying in and out of China, with major plans by the National Tourism Ministry to give Chinese tourism a clear edge, both for inward and outbound travellers, China is staking its claim as the single largest tourism market.
The first time I visited Shanghai in 1995, the city was waking up to a major re-development, but the mood was still sombre and inward looking. The Shanghai airport was small, not well kept and the girl at the Currency Exchange refused to recognise my Australian dollars. There were visitors from overseas, but China was still not quite tuned to any form of big time tourism, in-bound or out-bound.
A month ago, I was on a flight from Singapore to Maldives Islands and the plane was full of mainland Chinese. On the ground, I met with the Minister of Tourism and she said that the tiny island nation hosted 190,000 Chinese visitors in one year and they are constituted the biggest number in terms of tourism arrivals, followed by the United Kingdom (168,000) and Russia (65,000). What was staggering was not that Chinese tourists topped the list, but that the Tourism Minister is gearing up her Ministry and the Maldivian tourism industry to receive over a million Chinese tourists within the next 3 years, taking the tourist arrivals to over 2.5 million on a projected scale of tourism development.
It also appears that Chinese tourists, unlike the typical European tourist travelling on tight budgets, spend lavishly on accommodation, food and beverage and in shopping of artefacts from other countries – from paintings to sculpture, expensive jewellery, antiques, native furniture and are perhaps the biggest night club spenders. China’s economy may shrink from 10 per cent GDP growth to 9.1% on account of the current economic slowdown, but is way ahead of any other country in terms of its power to generate wealth. It is also exciting to note that Chinese have a certain passion for travels, for discovering other cultures and that they are just exploding with travel enthusiasm.
If one were to assume that the trend will continue, it is possible to forecast some 250 million Chinese to travel overseas by 2020. That year is just 8 fast years from now. This number will significantly lift the global tourism GDP which currently hovers around 10.5% – over $6.4 trillion in volume – and will increase substantially the number of hotels, motels, marinas, airlines, boats, coaches and all the good things of tourism industry. It will also increase the number of people directly and indirectly engaged in the tourism industry manifold.
There will also be the questions of an industry in transformation, propelled by the Chinese tourists, their specific cultural underpinnings, their quiet dominance of an industry long allocated to the “Western decadence” of idling life around beaches and bushes. At the same time, it must wake up small nations like Georgia, with so much to offer by way of culture, traditions, land and nature and above all its wonderful people, to think of tapping into the exploding Chinese tourism market and capture perhaps just one percent of the total number of Chinese travellers. If one does that, when 2020 arrives, Georgia will have some 2.5 million Chinese tourists in Georgia. On a projection that each visitor will spend an average of $2000 in Georgia, the tourism income then would amount to a staggering $5 billion.
If Georgia were to plan this strategy well ahead, it will require a complete transformation of the tourism industry to accommodate the Chinese visitors. They love the casinos but the Casinos should not just be roulette, poker and blackjack. It must have what Macao has, the total experience of gambling a night out, with all the song, dance, music, the wining and the dining. One needs to plan and build accommodation where the Chinese would love to spend their time. Research needs to determine whether Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi, Gudauri, Zugdidi, Mestia, Bakuriani, Borjomi can be possible targets.
Loads of information to be provided to the Chinese visitors, the level of service, the varied Chinese restaurants representing various Chinese ethnic culinary delights are all elements for close scrutiny and change. Chinese love all food, of all nations, but they prefer to eat Chinese food when they travel. The Georgian tourism industry may also need to gear up a few steps higher in training service staff to deal with Chinese culture, their language and their need to feel welcome in a foreign land. If the word gets around in China that Georgia is splendid and inviting land, Chinese may contribute 50 per cent of Georgia’s GDP through tourism by 2020. It is a challenge worth taking.