As international travel from China begins to pick up again in 2023, South Africa has a real opportunity to attract Chinese tourists and boost the economy. But change is needed to take advantage of this opportunity.
So says Marcus Lee, CEO of China Travel Online.
In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, Chinese travellers led the world in international travel, embarking on 155 million journeys and injecting US$255bn into the global economy, as per UNWTO data. Despite this staggering figure, South Africa only attracted a meagre 0.6% of these affluent travellers.
Fast forward to 2023, and the landscape of international travel is markedly different. China’s cautious reopening has cast a spotlight on Africa, with South Africa emerging as one of the first three nations on the continent to roll out the welcome mat to Chinese visitors in the post-COVID era.
Lee says it's worth noting that as of Q4 2023, international flight routes from China to the rest of the world had only recovered to around 30-40% of pre-pandemic levels. This presents a great opportunity for South Africa to bring these visitors to its shores.
Ahead of his talk at WTM Africa 2024 – which takes place from April 10-12 at the CTICC in Cape Town – Lee offers insight on three key ways South Africa can attract more Chinese visitors.
Improving flight connections
A significant challenge in South Africa's tourism sector is the absence of direct flights from China to popular South African destinations like Cape Town, which can inconvenience Chinese tourists who prefer direct routes.
"Connectivity is a crucial aspect that South Africa must address to fully tap into the potential of the Chinese travel market," states Lee. "Improved flight connectivity can significantly reduce travel time and inconvenience for Chinese tourists.”
Adaptation to the preferences of Chinese travellers
South Africa's current efforts to become ‘China Ready’ may have room for improvement, according to Lee. This means adapting to Chinese preferences, which includes language-friendly services, cultural understanding, and amenities catering for Chinese customs and traditions. Offering training programmes and initiatives could help South African businesses and professionals better understand and meet the expectations of Chinese travellers.
“Professional Chinese input plays a vital role in making destinations more ‘China Ready’,” he says. “Seeking guidance and expertise from individuals or organisations well-versed in Chinese culture, preferences, and travel behaviour is essential.”
Enhanced promotion and marketing strategies
While South Africa has a presence in China and engages in promotional activities, there is still a need for more effective strategies. Lee explains: "To attract Chinese tourists effectively, we need a comprehensive approach. That includes not just online marketing but also offline activities like attending exhibitions and roadshows. These efforts can boost South Africa's visibility among Chinese tourists."
Not only should South Africa step up its promotional efforts, but it’s also crucial to create travel packages tailored specifically to Chinese tourists and diversify the country’s tourism offerings to cater for different preferences, from luxury to more affordable experiences.