People watching

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am


Chinese people falling from the sky is becoming a common sight in Queensland.

'Chinese visitors to the Gold Coast are getting more adventurous,' says John Chan, the regional tourism board's marketing manager for China, as a group of 80 prepare to skydive from 12,000 feet.

Hopefully they won't land too close to the spot on the beach where surfing instructor Brad Holmes is helping a Chinese couple loosen up with some tai chi.

'Tai chi balances the body and focuses energy, which translates easily to the surfboard,' says Holmes, after delivering a warm Aussie welcome in Putonghua.

Greater China contributes more than A$3 billion (HK$24.5 billion) to Australia's tourism industry annually - more than any other country - and, with its sun-and-surf image, the state of Queensland is enjoying double-digit growth. Within the state, most arrivals head to one of two regions: the Gold Coast or the Tropical North.

The Gold Coast is fine-tuning its holiday offerings, encouraged by 172,000 visitors from the mainland and Taiwan last year- a rise of 21 per cent from 2009. Some 41,000 Hongkongers also travelled to the Gold Coast in that period.

'[Queensland has] the infrastructure to cater for Chinese package-tour visitors. However, new itineraries are being sought by China's emerging free independent travellers, particularly honeymooners and professional couples,' says Tourism Whitsundays' international tourism manager Lachlan Rentell.

The Gold Coast's Palazzo Versace, the world's first designer brand hotel, ticks all the aspirational boxes for many of those arriving with plump wallets, and the Q1 building offers a continuation of the high life, with its 77th-floor Skypoint Observation Deck, where 360-degree panoramas span 60 kilometres. As the Pacific Ocean languidly rolls onto a swathe of pristine beach far below, there's no better place to enjoy a cocktail or 'high' tea before descending to the Q1 Spa for pampering with an Australian accent.

Songbirds Rainforest Retreat's villas and award-winning restaurant nestle peacefully near Mount Tamborine, in the Gold Coast hinterland. Here, a stone-paved terrace wraps around a low-slung restaurant, where, surrounded by kookaburras, wallabies and the searing cry of whipbirds, visitors get a taste of the rainforest, albeit a luxurious one.

Close by, Skywalk- a 1.5-kilometre rainforest canopy walkway set up in the late 1980s by a local family- also reports growing numbers of Chinese visitors. As a result, it is broadening its conservation messages, with brochures and signage in Chinese.

At Broadbeach, south of Gold Coast suburb Surfers Paradise, Sofitel staff may greet guests with a breezy bonjour rather than ni hao, but they know what their visitors increasingly want. The hotel's Chinese translation service rates highly- as does Jupiters Casino, a two-minute monorail ride away.

Spending by mainland visitors to Queensland grew 32 per cent to A$333 million in the year to June 2010, and their average spend was higher than that of any other nation's tourists.

Not surprisingly, the urge to splurge is easily satisfied. Cavill Avenue in Surfers Paradise has fast fashion and fast food, as well as the designer-filled DFS Galleria, where souvenirs include chocolate-covered potato chips and emu- and kangaroo-skin handbags.

It remains to be seen whether the high-end shopping areas will continue to buzz when the three crystal towers of the six-star Ridong (Gold Coast) Development open. Scheduled to greet its first guests by December 2014, the A$900 million development will incorporate a resort hotel, luxury apartments, numerous restaurants, a retail zone, three gyms, a day spa and nine swimming pools.

Helping to get visitors there will be China Southern Airlines, which plans to begin flights between Guangzhou and the Gold Coast's Coolangatta Airport in 2015.

However, those guests will have to step beyond the crystal compound to savour Australia's unique culture, landscape, flora and fauna. Conveniently delivering most of Australia's wildlife in one spot is the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, where visitors come face to face with kangaroos, can pat baby crocodiles, watch birds of prey soar, witness cultural performances by Aboriginal dancers and are bombarded by squadrons of lorikeets, which descend twice daily for noisy feeding sessions.

Or there's popular theme park Sea World, in the suburb of Southport, where the performances need no interpretation.

Operators in northern Queensland are also keen to benefit from the developing market. Quicksilver Group is one company trying to spread the word about Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef to China's major provinces and cities.

'It's a fantastic achievement that a group of Cairns operators have now collaboratively branded a dozen retail travel shops in China,' says managing director Tony Baker. They have opened shops from Shenzhen to Shanghai, Ningbo, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Shenyang in a bid to entice the growing legions of affluent, middle-class mainlanders to Queensland's World Heritage reef and rainforest.

Canto-pop princesses Charlene Choi Cheuk-yin and Gillian Chung Yan-tung certainly appeared seduced when they visited one of the region's top tourism spots to shoot a music video.

'They loved Paronella Park, because it's a fantasy world that captures the imagination,' says park owner Mark Evans, who bought the crumbling castle in 1993. The park is becoming popular with the younger Chinese market due in part to the Twins' music videos. Evans now employs Putonghua- and Cantonese-speaking tour guides to meet the demand.

The managers of parks and natural attractions aren't the only ones taking Chinese tourism seriously. The Accor hotel group has rolled out a service-standards scheme for Chinese visitors and The Pullman Reef Hotel Casino in Cairns is the first to have been accredited under it. Training under the scheme covers cultural practices and basic greetings in Putonghua. Hotels that sign up must have a translated information kit, serve a Chinese breakfast and have Putonghua-speaking staff available.

The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway takes tourists on a 7.5-kilometre ride above the Barron Gorge National Park, from the Cairns suburb of Caravonica to Kuranda.

'Guangzhou has been our focal point for the past couple of years,' says sales manager Adam Letson, and the cableway's clientele is now 20 per cent Chinese.

From Cairns' Marlin Wharf, Green Island Reef Cruises' Big Cat takes tourists on a 50-minute ride to the world's largest collection of coral reefs. Putonghua-speaking Leo, an Australian originally from Taiwan, is ready to interpret, but the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef needs no translation.

It is paradise - in any language.