Law change might boost tourism

BLUE SKY: Tourists enjoy Lake Tekapo.
BLUE SKY: Tourists enjoy Lake Tekapo.

This summer the Chinese tourist will become much more noticeable hopping in and out of campervans at visitor landmarks such as Lake Tekapo's Church of the Good Shepherd or Milford Sound to view Mitre Peak.

A Chinese law change means they are more likely to be seen down the highways and byways of the regions, than out of sight on organised shopping tours to foreign-owned Auckland and Rotorua souvenir outlets.

The legislative change from October 1 was designed to stop these tours, that often left the Chinese unsatisfied with their holiday Down Under.

The tourism industry is welcoming the law change, saying it should lead to more independent and higher-spending travellers visiting the real New Zealand.

About 78 million Chinese are crossing their borders annually and that figure could grow to 400 million in five years' time, a seemingly incredible Chinese forecast by Premier Li Keqiang.

The mind-boggling Chinese figures seems to offer abundant tourism opportunities but New Zealand will be competing with North America and the United Kingdom to attract the new Chinese middle class.

The number heading our way now is just a drop in that massive bucket - 234,500 this year, spending on average $2700 dollars each - in total, $633 million.

But Chinese tourists are already the second-largest source of visitors after Australians, who come in their droves - about a million a year.

There have been warnings in the past that New Zealand should maintain a balanced mix of visitors, to avoid the risks of a downturn akin to the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.

However, those in the tourism industry have their glasses fully charged to toast China. Chinese tourists are forecast to spend about $1.1 billion here in 2018.

But it will not be handed to New Zealand businesses on a plate. Tourism leaders say tourism operators need to do their homework to attract and please Chinese holidaymakers.

The country needs better signage, and Kiwi hospitality and tourism operators should work on having better language skills to compete with the likes of Europe.

The stereotype of coach-driven Chinese moving from one souvenir shop to another no longer applies, the experts say.

Many Chinese tourists are happy on a shared bus trip of New Zealand destinations including Rotorua and Queenstown.

Other more wealthy Chinese prefer to be indulged with a more exclusive offering of lodges, fine Kiwi foods and wine and partaking in cultural events with Maori hosts.

Ryan Ingram, sales and marketing director of tourism operator Real Journeys that operates coaches and boats on Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, says a simple offering of hot noodles can go a long way.

Real Journeys representatives have been visiting China for 10 years to make tourism trade contacts.

Real Journeys now has 10 Mandarin speakers and other staff are put through a "cultural" training programme.

"In terms of a Chinese experience they're very heavily into food . . . if you don't have a hot lunch, it's certainly no-go [in creating goodwill]," Ingram says.

More Chinese are travelling around New Zealand, says Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter.

"I happened to be at Pukaki [one] weekend, I was on the lakeshore and I counted seven rental cars with what were definitely Chinese visitors, and a couple of smaller coaches - 24 to 30-seaters - with some more groups of them."

New Zealand has recently outstripped Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom in Chinese visitor percentage growth, Hunter says.

"I think some of the work Tourism NZ's done with social media has really paid off."

Hunter says young professional Chinese are seeing New Zealand as the new cool destination. "I can't say it will last forever but it's a very good thing to happen."

CCT has recently run "China ready" seminars for tourism businesses.

Christchurch Airport is talking up the chance of a permanent China Southern Airlines service. So far it has one special chartered Boeing 787 Dreamliner service confirmed for Christchurch in February.

The airport's chief executive, Jim Boult, says at the beginning talks with China Southern were very formal, but they have become more relaxed.

"You use this analogy of a courtship. You've got to keep on dating and handing over the presents until you finally get to the altar."

The airport has Chinese language signage.

However, only about 20 per cent of Chinese visitors to New Zealand, or about 42,000, are getting this far south annually.

That appeared to be changing, though, following the shopping tour law change. Chinese October arrivals in the south were up 42 per cent on October last year, Boult says.

Auckland's Keri Davis is the owner of ICEworks New Zealand which designs tours for small groups of wealthy Chinese tourists wanting to rub shoulders with Kiwis and participate in cultural events like hangis.

"They're not interested in the tourist traps, they've got no interest in going to Te Puia or Whakarewarewa . . . they don't want to be standing in queues . . . so we need to provide a more exclusive experience," Davis says of the well-heeled visitors.

In the past 12 months he has hosted tours on themes such as agriculture and architecture. As well as visiting locations like Auckland, Wellington and Napier (for its art deco buildings,) the architecture tours have visited Christchurch, taking in sights including the Re:Start container mall and cardboard cathedral.

Patrick English, executive director of the New Zealand China Council, says Chinese visitors to New Zealand are expected to nearly double to 400,000 by 2018.

The Chinese were used to quality stays in their domestic market, so an area of concern was our lack of "world-class" hotels.

English spent 12 of the past 16 years living in China in trade roles. When Chinese tourists visited New Zealand they often saw business and education opportunities.

There is work to do, including smoothing the language path, English says.

"I've been on planes sitting next to Chinese who are looking at our immigration forms and they're all in English and they have to write in English . . . and that's not easy."

Tourism Holdings chief executive Grant Webster says: "The opportunity for China to be in the top five markets for bookings in our business is real and now expected."

Chris Roberts, general manager of corporate affairs for Tourism New Zealand (TNZ), says a newly launched web-based "China Toolkit" will help operators cater to the growth.

The type of Chinese visitor is changing dramatically. Until recently, about 75 per cent of visitors came on short-term group tours. However, Roberts says the law change means about 50 per cent are the higher-spending independent or long-stay visitors.

Some of the "less desirable" Chinese or Australian shopping consortia-owned souvenir shops have closed.

The law change has also led to Chinese visitor numbers in October falling 11 per cent on the October 2012 figure, but they should be back to growth by Chinese New Year in early February, Roberts says.

Our scenery is an important part of the trip for the urban Chinese.

"Actually being able to see the stars at night and the blue skies during the day, that is a big drawcard. There is a rejuvenation aspect to it," Roberts says.

China is also the latest country to experience TNZ's 100% Middle-earth, 100% Pure New Zealand marketing campaign, tied to Peter Jackson's Hobbit films.

Images of New Zealand are reaching the Asian market through social media sites and on DVD advertising screens running in taxis in the larger Chinese cities.

TNZ's marketing spend reflects the priority placed on China. Out of an $80 million budget, TNZ is spending $17m on marketing to Australians and $15m to the Chinese.

"If you are in an area and you haven't really seen Chinese visitors to date, you are going to see them soon," Roberts says.

Watch that space.