China Import and Export Fair, also known as the Canton Fair, is held biannually in Guangzhou every spring and autumn. The exhibition, which has been held every year since 1957, is the largest of its kind in China in terms of scale, variety, distribution of overseas buyers and business turnover.
Online trade challenges but the showcase goes on
Buyers from emerging markets push up visitor numbers despite rising production costs
While some visitors to the Canton Fair say online trading platforms and rising costs on the mainland are taking the shine off Guangzhou's oldest trade event, others maintain it still has an edge as a source for products.
The fair's spring session drew 91,935 buyers in the first three days after opening on Monday, a jump of 11 per cent from last autumn's session and the first rise in 2-1/2 years.
While there were only slightly more American buyers and the number of European and Russian buyers fell, merchandisers from emerging economies fuelled the growth, with the number of Indian buyers surging 60.64 per cent, African 30.1 per cent and Egyptian 31.23 per cent.
Despite the rebound in traffic, many traders said the Canton Fair was gradually losing its appeal, as costs escalated and the variety of its exhibits diminished.
"I didn't find anything new or interesting here, and the size of the electronics section has got even smaller," said Vishwanath Kapoor, an Indian buyer who was looking for audio cables and connectors for his Delhi-based audio brand Setmi.
Michael Jenkins, a British merchandiser who helps his European clients source goods and manage their businesses in China, said he did not find anything new, either, but the trade fair still had its value.
Jenkins, who owns a consultancy and sourcing company named after the fair, said some of his clients had switched back to face-to-face sourcing after being cheated by online fraudsters.
"One of my clients ordered two containers of used cooking oil from one supplier he found on Alibaba.com They gave him a mixture of oil and water," he said. Jenkins told of another case in which rocks were delivered instead of charcoal, as ordered.
But he said it was both costly and very difficult for buyers to pursue fraudsters from another jurisdiction.
This is why many European firms still hire middlemen like Jenkins, especially when the cost of dealing directly with mainland suppliers continues to surge.
"Nowadays, a four-day trip from London to China costs about 23,000 yuan [HK$28,900] per head. Five years ago, we only spent half as much," Jenkins said. "It makes sense for you to hire someone based on the mainland to do the job for you."
A Taiwanese buyer of car accessories said escalating costs on the mainland, which have driven many manufacturers to seek cheaper locations in neighbouring countries, might eventually jeopardise the fair's role.
"I believe China may eventually lose its position as a merchandise sourcing hub to India or Vietnam, which are nurturing a number of domestic suppliers of low-tech products," Chou Chen-huang, executive director of Taiwan-based Airesh Accessories, said.
"The transition could take just three to five years."