“Making Caribbean tourism ‘Chinese-ready'” By Sir Ronald Sanders
In recent years Chinese tourists have been touted as the new opportunity for growth of the industry in the Caribbean. But how realistic is this prospect for countries in the Caribbean, many of which are now reliant on tourism for employment and foreign exchange income?
Until there is huge investment in marketing, airlift, tourism plant, and language training, the prospect of an appreciable and steady flow of Chinese tourists will remain remote. If Caribbean countries genuinely want a share of Chinese tourism, rigorous work has to be undertaken now to make fundamental preparations for what is a long-term project. The more that countries delay in making such preparations, the more distant will be the likelihood of attracting Chinese tourists.
The urgency of investing money in organising for a future Chinese tourist market coincides with a bad time for Caribbean countries, many of which are experiencing economic difficulties. Several governments are simultaneously facing declining revenues and increasing costs to deliver goods and services to their populations. The amount of money that is needed to invest in a future Chinese tourism market is simply not available to any individual government. Nonetheless, it would be imprudent of Caribbean governments not to act together to start developing the Chinese market.
In this context, Caribbean governments should consider mandating a regional organisation such as the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) to undertake the preparatory work now on their collective behalf. It might require the establishment of a special unit within CTO devoted to this work which would be considerable.
The latter point concerning air lift is crucial. The journey between China and the Caribbean is long and there are no direct airline services. The need to break the journey either in North America or Europe increases the length of the journey and its cost, putting it out of the reach of the majority of Chinese tourists.
A recent report by the World Tourism Cities Federation (WTCF) provides instructive information on Chinese tourists. The most significant statistic – and the one that causes such allure for Chinese tourism – is the amount of money spent by Chinese tourists. In 2013, 98.19 million Chinese travelled abroad, spending US$128.7 billion – an increase of 26.8% from 2012. Of that huge sum of money, 57.6% was spent on shopping; 17.82% on accommodation; 10.88% on transport; 5.84% on food; and 7.4% on entertainment. The number of Chinese touring abroad also increased by 18% in 2013 over the previous year.
However, there are many challenges to the task of pursuing a share of the large Chinese tourist spend. For example, the majority of Chinese tourists – 56.21% of them – earn about US$1,600 per month and 22.26% earn US$2,400 or more. These figures suggest that given only the cost of travel, Chinese tourism to the Caribbean will be limited to a smaller, high-end market. This conclusion is re-enforced by figures which show that the four most popular destinations for Chinese tourists are cities in nearby South Korea and Japan to which the cost of travel is considerably less than long-haul flights.
Additionally, the Caribbean will have to compete against other destinations that are closer to China, such as Indonesia, Maldives, Thailand and the Philippines that, like the Caribbean, offer sun, sea and sand, and many more historic heritage sites. These destinations already have a jump on the Caribbean through programmes designed especially for Chinese visitors.
The US and Canada are also competitors – although there is potential for complementarity between Caribbean countries and some North American regions – for double-destination tourism. This possibility has many challenges but it could be pursued for the benefit of countries that take advantage of it. Links between airlines serving China and the Caribbean from North America would be especially important.
Interestingly for the Caribbean countries that enjoy ‘designated‘ tourism status by the Chinese government, this year, Air China also launched non-stop flights between Beijing and Washington, D.C, while the smaller Hainan Airlines, which had already been flying routes to Seattle, Chicago and Toronto, launched a service between Beijing and Boston. It is with these airlines that Caribbean Tourism agencies and airlines could usefully engage.
There is certainly a higher end Chinese tourism market that Caribbean countries can pursue, but there is much work to be done at a regional level to identify the challenges and opportunities, and at the national level to make themselves ‘Chinese-ready‘.