Africa looks to China for tourism boost

Upgraded offerings, nature attractions helping countries improve earnings

To view the animals he saw on TV as a child, Chen Bo visited Africa twice – in December last year and in May.

“I stayed there for 10 days during each of my visits,” said Chen, 40. “I went to several places in Kenya, such as Masai Mara National Reserve, Meru National Park and Kenya National Park.”

He was amazed by the diversity of animals there and Africans’ efforts to protect them.

“I don’t have any problems when traveling there. People there are very hospitable,” Chen said.

Janet Kwamboka, a manager at a travel company in Nairobi, is buoyant about Africa’s prospects of drawing more Chinese tourists in the near future.

Unlike before, she said, Chinese tourists do not limit their preferences. “Besides visiting the famous Masai Mara National Reserve to view the wildebeest migration in July, their uptake on new offerings is high and brings them to Kenya all year round. This is a boost to the country’s tourism sector.”

Kwamboka said Chinese visitors now want to see rare wildlife species such as the Grevy’s zebra, Somali ostrich, reticulated giraffe, gerenuk, also known as the giraffe gazelle, and oryx.

“They request to stay in hotels with golf courses. In addition, Chinese tourists take a four-hour journey to visit tea farms to experience tea farming in Kenya,” she said. Sporting activities such as mountain climbing, zip lining and river rafting are also popular choices.

Kenya counted about 82,000 Chinese visitors in 2018, a 37.7 percent increase compared with the previous year, according to Kenyan government data. However, the East African country hopes to attract around 1 million Chinese tourists each year.

Kenya is the third-largest tourism-driven economy in sub-Saharan Africa and contributed $7.9 billion, or about 8.8 percent, to the country’s GDP. The tourism sector supported 1.1 million people last year.

Other African countries also hope to improve on the relatively low number of Chinese visitors to the continent.

While Europe received more than 12.4 million Chinese tourists in 2017, according to in-flight digital advertiser, Africa received only a fraction of the 130 million Chinese outbound tourists. The China Tourism Academy estimates that Africa had about 800,000 Chinese tourists in 2017.

African countries with the largest number of Chinese tourists in 2017 were Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa, Mauritius and Zimbabwe, according to Dragon Trail, a China-based digital marketing agency.

Observers and policymakers believe Chinese travelers can improve Africa’s earnings.

Najib Balala, Kenyan Cabinet secretary of tourism and wildlife, said: “For a long time we have been obsessed with traditional markets. Nevertheless, emerging markets, such as Asia and Eastern Europe, have numbers to reckon with. We need to upgrade our offerings to capture smart, well-traveled Chinese millennials. We need to up our game.”

Besides low competitiveness, the continent’s tourism sector has been affected by instability, epidemics and security challenges.

A 2018 report titled “Sovereigns – Africa, Closer Trade and Investment Ties With China” by ratings agency Moody’s said 10 African countries – South Africa, Mauritius, Morocco, Egypt, Kenya, Namibia, Cape Verde, Botswana, Tunisia and Tanzania – are most likely to benefit from increased numbers of visitors from China. The view is backed by the 30 percent annual growth in the number of Chinese arrivals since 2012.

In recent years, the number of Chinese visitors buying Africa tour packages has jumped, according to the Luxury Chinese Traveler 2018 Report.

A report by China CYTS Tour Co said the number of Chinese travelers bound for Africa increased 40 percent per year in the past five years.

Ctrip, an online travel agency based in Shanghai, said it saw a steady increase in travelers to Africa in the past three years.

The increase in Chinese tourists going to Africa is due to improved Sino-African cooperation, according to Rajneesh Bhuee, an economist based in Kenya. She said Chinese have increasingly become aware of the continent’s offerings, thanks to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.

“This is besides the high-level visits by both China’s president and premier to the continent in the recent past. … Notably, these events have not only put emphasis on political, economic and trade ties but people-to-people relationships, which have a direct impact on tourism.”

The China Outbound Tourism Research Institute expects about 180 million Chinese to travel abroad this year, compared with 149 million in 2018. It estimated that the figure will rise to 260 million by 2030.

Africa can benefit from these numbers by prioritizing the Chinese market, observers said.

In South Africa, the tourism industry is pursuing new strategies to further understand the needs of Chinese visitors. Industry analysts said Chinese tourism is vital to Africa’s economic growth.

“It is important for tourism businesses in South Africa to realize the benefits of becoming China-ready,” said Mansoor Mohamed, the Beijing-based head of the Asia-Pacific region for South African Tourism. “We are dissecting vital information on how to enter the lucrative Chinese outbound travel market.”

Early this year, South Africa announced that it had signed an agreement with China for 10-year multiple entry visas that will pave the way for an e-visa system.

According to Moody’s, an increasing number of Chinese tourists traveled to Mauritius, Morocco and Tunisia without a visa, while they got a visa on arrival in Egypt and Tanzania.

Upgrading offerings is also seen as a way to increase the number of visitors to Africa.

“We can no longer sell outdated offerings to the Chinese millennial. Some businesses have already invested in upgrading their establishments. Language can no longer be the barrier if we are to inject more earnings into our economy,” said Balala, the Kenyan Cabinet secretary.

Kwamboka, the travel company manager in Nairobi, said the hospitality sector has been trying to provide authentic Chinese cuisine and employ Mandarin-speaking staff. It has also invested heavily in providing Mandarin-language signs in popular sites, she said

Zhang Jie, director of Ctrip’s theme-tour department, said that in-depth and ecology-related tour packages in Africa have been increasingly popular among Chinese travelers in the past few years.

“I’ve visited a travel service provider in Africa who offers field training courses and travel routes close to nature, such as picking leaves in forests and appreciating birds,” she said. “The travelers followed their guides and some experts in nature research to primitive houses where no modern bathrooms are available, but the travelers were really happy to be one with nature.”

Zhang said about 200 Chinese tourists have participated in such programs so far. “Travelers in the program can get in very close touch with the nature of Africa. It’s a very good choice for them to relieve pressure.”

Data from Lvmama, an online travel agency based in Shanghai, showed that its users’ reservations for tour packages to Africa from April to June increased 43 percent year-on-year.

Cai Hong contributed to this story.

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