With South Africa looking to develop tourism markets abroad, a better understanding is required of how those potential visitors are travelling – how they book, how long they stay and what they like to do at the destination. Four trade development workshops hosted by SA Tourism were held recently across China with a view to capitalise on tourism opportunities, with local suppliers highlighting South African products and investigating marketing initiatives. The workshops served as valuable networking opportunities for the creation and consolidation of new business and trade while boosting confidence in SA among the outbound operators and travel agents.

420 agents attended the workshops, providing extensive market information.

The market potential in China is massive, with a population exceeding 1.3 billion. However, as a source market the country is relatively small. As an indication, 84 878 Chinese visitors came to SA in 2015, a slight increase of 2.2% year on year. China accounts for around 4% of overseas visitors to SA. Visitor numbers from China had declined in 2014, purportedly as a result of the visa debacle and the West African Ebola outbreak but then recovered in the latter part of 2015; this growth seems set to continue.

According to The Future of Chinese Travel report, South Africa is among the top-15 destinations for Chinese tourists, with Gauteng being the second-most-popular area in the Middle East and Africa region for Chinese travellers. South Africa is also among the top-15 destinations in terms of the Chinese share of total travel spending, which is expected to grow from US$500 million in 2013 to more than US$3 billion in 2023.

The distance from China to South Africa is approximately 12 000km, which means it take at least 15 hours by air to travel between the two countries. Research conducted in 2010 shows there are over 500 000 Chinese people living in this country, according to Dr Yoon Jung Park, the Co-ordinator of the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China International Research Working Group at Rhodes University and Chinese restaurants, China malls, and Chinatowns are everywhere.

China is now South Africa's largest trading partner, both in exports and imports, with trade between the two countries over R100 billion. By the end of 2015, South Africa and China had signed 26 agreements worth R94 billion.

Every month, more than 14 000 Chinese tourists visit South Africa. On average, Chinese tourists spend $6 200 (nearly R100 000) on a 10-day trip.

As a source market it’s not mature – the workshops revealed that from city to city, awareness of SA’s tourism offerings ranged from largely unaware to some awareness, although great interest was expressed in finding out more.

A useful insight is that there are distinct differences between cities and regions in China in terms of travel preferences.

Beijing and Guangzhou are larger cities with first-tier awareness of South Africa, while Xi’an and Hangzhou are considered second-tier market cities – both of those welcomed as much information as possible.

Forty percent of agents in Beijing are marketing SA as a destination, with agents travelling to explore SA on personal trips. Having enjoyed their experiences and the attractions, these agents are returning to China to create packages. Beijing travellers to SA prefer travel packages and are more likely to travel in bigger groups, visiting the main attractions. These visitors will also travel at any time of year for events and conferences; they enjoy golf and cultural experiences; and typically book a year in advance.

The average length of stay for leisure visitors is 10 days, with four days/three nights in Cape Town. They prefer to visit around the time of the Chinese New Year in January/February or between May and June, when the Chinese take their annual holidays.

Visitors from Xi’an prefer consumer activities that act as bucket-list opportunities, including adventure experiences such as abseiling and whale tours, in addition to cultural activities such as the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, the Cape Town Carnival, Fashion Week and the Cape Town Marathon. Rivals for this market are destinations such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Morocco and Egypt. These tourists also prefer luxury offerings such as private flights for local travel.

Those from Guangzhou enjoy luxury travel – visits to top restaurants and retail experiences hold great appeal. They’re typically corporate visitors and they’re high-end consumers.

The favoured routes in SA are Johannesburg-Kruger and Sun City-Cape Town.

Events and conferences would present opportunities for this market, and increased air access vis-à-vis more direct flights would facilitate travel. It was found that there could be more inter-governmental co-operation in facilitating travel relating to arts and culture and sport and recreation. Currently the Chinese Embassy assists with official visits to SA for investment purposes and this, too, could be an opportunity to promote attractions and cultural experiences.

Two gaps in the market are wine, with this holding a fascination with China but being a largely untapped opportunity, and the globally hyped opening of the Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) which takes place in early 2017.

Targeted marketing to a variety of travel preferences would generate greater reach and provide a broader view of the experiences and attractions SA has to offer this potentially lucrative market.