Chinese outbound tourism growing rapidly
The culture of tourism services across the globe is changing, influenced by the rapid rise in mainlanders who travel abroad
They may seem worlds apart but the story of Swiss-made watches and mainland China's insatiable hunger for these quality timepieces tells us something about the world we live in and the future global tourist.
In the luxurious high-end watch stores of Switzerland, Putonghua-speaking salespeople attend to customers. While the fancy gold-plated faces are clearly engraved with Swiss-made logos, the dollars that buy them are firmly "made in China".
"Last year, of all the Swiss watches sold in Switzerland, 50 per cent were to the Chinese market," said Xu Jing, head of the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) Asia-Pacific programme.
Xu said he believed mainland Chinese would become the biggest force in global tourism within three years.
"My gut feeling is that by 2015, the Chinese may be able to achieve that, barring further European crises. It's coming and it's coming in a big way."
He said: "Ten years ago, you never would have seen Asian girls at duty-free or brand stores to service the Chinese, but now in London, Frankfurt, Paris, they all hire Chinese shop attendants."
Last year, global tourism was worth US$1.2 trillion, or 6 per cent of the world's exports of goods and services. By December, the number of tourists worldwide is set to hit one billion.
"The Chinese are the biggest market right now," Xu told the Sunday Morning Post last week from Chengdu, Sichuan, where he was attending a forum on sustainable travel.
"In absolute terms, the Americans, the Germans and the English are still the biggest travellers. Yet as we speak, the Chinese outbound market is the most energetic driving force of international tourism."
Tourism is one of the few industries that has proven resilient amid global turmoil, including the euro-zone crisis.
Last month, UNWTO secretary general Taleb Rifai told the audience at the Global Tourism Economy Forum in Macau that tourism was one of the few sectors that continued to drive economic progress and create jobs in developed and developing countries during these tough economic times.
Xu singled out Australia as an example of marketing to the Chinese at an early stage.
"In the old days, the Asian tourist going to Australia was from Japan, with the Gold Coast [in Queensland] flooded with Japanese tourists," he said.
When this source stagnated, previously glitzy facilities began to decay and lose their shine.
"But the Australians were able to readjust their Asian strategy and now you see how that saved Australia in terms of its reception of international tourism."
Xu, based in Spain, said the financial crises that hit Greece and Portugal were, in part, owing to their failure to target Chinese tourists aggressively.
He said while tourism in these two countries was one of the few sectors of the economy that still held up, had they strengthened their strategy earlier, perhaps their current situation would have been less drastic. "The Greeks, the Portuguese, those most affected by the euro crisis, economically speaking, were not good in penetrating the Chinese market," he said.
He says tourism is a sure-fire solution to help them out of their financial woes because the islands of Greece and the Aegean sea are full of myths of love and romance, which hold immense appeal for tourists, and certainly those from China.
"The Germans, the French and the British; these three, and to a lesser extent the Italians, have maintained an aggressive strategy in penetrating the Chinese market, which effectively saved them during the euro crisis, financially and economically," Xu said.
"The Chinese are a driving force of international tourism and they have energetically stopped the economic and financial crisis in certain countries.
"Just look, they are everywhere and they are shopping. That's not normal consumer behaviour, so those who have readjusted their strategy on a timely basis have done well."
Xu said the voracious appetite for luxury brands and shopping in general was an inherent part of Asian culture. "This is a fundamental part of their culture, different from the mature European tourist. For example, a European or American can go to Thailand for 10 days. They will drink beer, read books, basically do nothing and maybe spend a small amount of time shopping.
"But Asian tourists - it doesn't matter if they are rich or poor, from secondary or even tertiary cities - they always love to bring back gifts because a message has to be conveyed that I have travelled and travelled abroad.
"It is deeply born into the nature of Asian people. It means gifts for close friends but also candies in the office and even gifts for not very close friends."
But it was not a matter of Chinese tourists exclusively wanting to shop, Xu said. "No, they still go to the Musée Louvre [in Paris] but in the evening, instead of going to a bar they would rather go to [French department store] Galeries Lafayette."
Xu said another example was the Maldives, which after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami realised the potential of Chinese tourists, who now account for 30 per cent of total arrivals.
Before that, 90 per cent of visitors to the islands in the Indian Ocean were from Europe.
The average total spending of an outbound Chinese tourist was also higher compared with their European or American counterparts, Xu said.
UNWTO figures last month show that year on year, Chinese tourists spent 30 per cent more when travelling abroad than last year. It was the biggest increase in spending, with Russians second with 15 per cent.
This trend will continue to rise as Chinese tourists still save in areas that have scope for growth.
"Currently, the Chinese can stay in a three- or four-star hotel but their shopping spending is way up compared to other European tourists," he said.
Two years ago, the Chinese were sixth for outbound expenditure. "Now they are three or four," Xu said.
The biggest sources were the three tier-one cities: Beijing, Shanghai (and Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces) and Guangdong, including Guangzhou, with minor pockets from areas with coal mine owners.
"Psychologically, shopping when travelling is behaviour attributed to being newly rich and many Chinese people are in that stage. On top of that, the idea of face is more important than anything, so it's part of the psyche."