EDITORIAL: Chinese tourism to South Africa

South Africa still to fully leverage its tourism resources for the Chinese market

by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt FRGS FRAS

Continuing his travels, last week your humble editor had a chance to visit yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, after having been to the Diaolou towers in China the week before. The “Cradle of Humankind”, an area close to Tshwane (ex-Pretoria) is the world’s richest hominin site, home to around 40% of the world’s human ancestor fossils. It is a potent reminder of the fact that We are all One, a notion which was denied for a long time in South Africa. Even today, 70% of all wealth in South Africa belongs to the white population, while most of the 37% unemployment rate is related to black citizens.

More than 130,000 Chinese outbound travellers visited the country in 2012, a number not reached again in the following years. Indeed for the first five months of 2018, arrivals from China numbered 39,000, down from 43,000 for the same period in 2017. Consequently, 2018 will see an annual arrival number below 100,000.

South Africa is a beautiful country, full of natural wonders, breathtaking landscapes, the Big 5, casinos, good wine and friendly and hospitable people. It is one of the five BRICS states and hosted the group’s annual summit only a few weeks ago. South Africa has received a considerable share of the approximately 100 billion Chinese total investment in Africa over the past 20 years and has been China’s largest trading partner in the continent since 2010, accounting for up to a third of overall Chinese-African trade.

Nevertheless, in 2015 tiny Mauritius received more Chinese visitors than S.A., while 2017 saw Morocco, an African country without direct air connections to China, overtake S.A. in terms of Chinese arrivals.

The reasons for this limited success and the current decrease in arrival number were discussed during the global ITSA International Tourism Studies Association (of which your humble author has the privilege of being Vice-President for Western Europe) conference, hosted by the University of South Africa (presentation available at the following link), as well as during a CTW Chinese Tourism Welcome Training session for the North West Province Tourism Board.

Safety and complicated visa application processes are two obvious obstacles. The inner cities of Johannesburg and Tshwane are certainly seeing more crime than Shanghai or Sydney, and even some Chinese tourism professors could not get their visa in time to participate in the ITSA conference.

What became apparent, however, was also a lack of market intelligence, product adaptation and adequate training for tourism service providers. For example, your reporter checked into four hotels, and each time the receptionist could not find the reservation, either because the name was spelled incorrectly, like Professorarlt (sorted under “P”) or the reservation was under the name of the secretary of the Tourism Board who made the booking – and that was not even an issue surrounding a Chinese name.

The vast majority of Chinese visitors to S.A. come in package tour groups, neither members of the one million strong community of Chinese living in Africa nor FITs play any significant role. Accordingly the itineraries on offer are almost all of the old-fashioned jump-out-of-the-bus-take a photo-rush on type. The “Second Wave” of Chinese travellers looking for experiences rather than sightseeing, which would provide business to service providers offering deeper immersion into local culture and nature, has apparently not arrived in the country yet, even though travel for instance in the North West province is quite secure and self-drive possible on an adequate network of highways. AliPay has been available in South Africa since last year.

S.A. is missing out the chance to leverage its ample tourism resources and the close relationship to China within the BRICS organisation by failing to move away from the old-fashioned structures of exclusively B2B package business. The country has been active in tourism marketing in China, but has yet to translate the Rainbow nation concept into an equally diverse market approach.

A successful and peaceful week for all our readers!

Prof. W.G. Arlt and the COTRI Weekly team

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