Western Australia’s top tourism agency is looking to capture more market share for the state by focusing on the changing behaviour of Chinese tourists, who are increasingly seeking unique adventures and experiences instead of travelling in large organised groups.
Historically, most Chinese travellers to Australia have preferred to come in organised tour groups, predominantly to cities on the east coast.
But with the growing wealth and changing demographics of China’s middle class, the behaviour of Chinese tourists is steadily changing.
Departures from China exceeded 135 million in 2016, according to Hong Kong-based CLSA, and are expected to reach 200 million by 2020.
A recent report by LEK Consulting, commissioned by the Australia China Business Council, showed the number of Chinese travellers to Australia had grown by 13.7 per cent each year since 2005, with forecasts showing 3 million Chinese tourists would visit the country in 2026.
The report said in 2005 just 48 per cent of Chinese visitors to Australia were classed as free independent travellers – the tourism industry term for those who seek their own experiences and adventures while on holiday.
In 2016, the report said the number of Chinese free independent travellers had grown to 55 per cent of the 1.2 million Chinese visitors to Australia last year.
However, in WA the proportion of independent travellers is much greater, with Tourism Western Australia’s research showing 93 per cent of Chinese visitors to the state in 2015-16 chose to go their own way.
Tourism Western Australia chairman Nathan Harding said the changing behaviour of Chinese travellers was shaping up as a clear opportunity for WA.
“The transformation from being a group-based traveller to a much more adventurous traveller, and wanting to see things and wanting to get out on their own is happening really fast,” Mr Harding told Australia China Business Review.
“That really benefits Western Australia, because visiting WA is not like going to another city that’s a lot like most cities.
“A lot of people that are coming to Western Australia have probably been to Australia before, so they’ve probably seen a couple of our big cities and they know that they are like most other big cities, especially if you’ve travelled to Europe.
“When you come here there is something a little bit different.
“A lot of what is appealing here is the clean open skies, the nature, and particularly for Perth, we have got this quite unique combination of urban and nature in pretty much the same place.
“Then when you bring into that the Swan Valley and the Pinnacles, you bring in a range of activities like food and wine experiences that are really appealing, particularly to a wealthy younger market.”
Mr Harding said Chinese travellers to WA were becoming more adventurous quicker than expected, with Chinese visitors increasingly heading to more remote locations of the state.
“There are a couple of great examples of places that have really attracted Chinese visitors, which is the two pink lakes, one near Esperance and one near Geraldton,” Mr Harding said.
“They are in relatively remote locations and I’d dare say that there are probably a lot of people in Perth that haven’t been to see the lakes.
“All of a sudden, these pink lakes are getting quite a following in China, largely through social media.
“It’s not tens of thousands of visitors, but it’s independent travellers finding their way to quite remote parts of the state, that if you go back a few years, wouldn’t have been expected at all.”
Mr Harding said Tourism WA would continue to implement strategies aimed at increasing the number of Chinese visitors to WA by showcasing the state’s varied and unique experiences on platforms familiar to Chinese tourists.
He said Tourism WA’s targets were ambitious – more than 100,000 Chinese visitors by 2020, around double the amount currently arriving – while the initiatives would be aimed at young independent travellers.
Last year, Tourism WA launched its first specific television advertisements for Chinese audiences, as part of the agency’s ‘Just another day in WA’ campaign.
“We’ve also been active in bringing bloggers across, because that works very well, particularly in the Chinese market,” Mr Harding said.
“We have done that a number of times and had some good success with that and really helped drive the awareness.”
Tourism WA has also tapped into e-commerce giant Alibaba Group’s tourism portal, Fliggy, in collaboration with China Southern Airlines.
Fliggy is rapidly growing in popularity, becoming the travel app of choice for more than 200 million Chinese travellers.
The world’s largest luxury hotel chain, Marriott International, has also taken notice, signing a joint venture in August to market directly to Alibaba’s customer base, estimated to be more than 500 million across all its networks.
Australia’s national airline Qantas announced in August customers would be able to book flights on Fliggy, while the establishment of a joint marketing campaign to tap into Alibaba’s 500-million-plus users was also being explored.
Tourism WA’s Fliggy campaign enables travellers not only to book their flights to WA and their hotels, but also to sign up for a range of adventure tours and experiences.
The campaign is targeted at travellers aged between 25 and 45. There are around 30 WA-based tours, hotels or experiences bookable on the Fliggy platform.
Tourism WA also recently signed a strategic cooperative agreement with online travel giant Ctrip, to further promote the state to potential Chinese tourists.
“Another part of the strategy for us is around the industry here and making sure that the industry is ready to support Chinese travellers,” Mr Harding said.
“Even though there is a proportion of visitors that are very happy to go out and just experience the real Australia, it is still really important for hotels to be what we call China ready.”
Notwithstanding the opportunities available for WA with respect to Chinese travellers, a significant barrier to growing visitation in the state is airline capacity.
In October, China Southern Airlines increased its direct services between Perth and Guangzhou, taking the number of weekly flights to five, while also providing new Airbus A33B aircraft to operate the route.
The upgrade means an additional 43,888 passengers can travel between the two cities each year.
However, China Southern is the only airline currently offering direct flights from Perth to China, having begun operating that route in 2011.
Cathay Pacific runs daily flights between Hong Kong from Perth, and also has plans to upgrade its aircraft, with Airbus A350s slated to operate the route in coming months, a move which would add more than 17,000 seats per year.
By comparison, there are 13 Chinese cities serviced by direct flights from Sydney, and nine in Melbourne, not including Hong Kong.
Bringing WA more in line with those states is a top priority for Perth Airport chief executive Kevin Brown.
Mr Brown said discussions with China Eastern Airlines were ongoing regarding the establishment of a Perth-Shanghai route, while the state government announced midway through its delegation to China that a trial of the flights could occur as early as October next year.
“Direct connectivity to China with frequency and capacity is the bulk of our priority list and, having a range of airlines that cover major hubs and secondary cities, is certainly a key priority for ourselves and something we are investing in and we’ll continue to invest in,” Mr Brown told Australia China Business Review.
The potential addition of a Perth-Shanghai route would not only benefit inbound and outbound tourists, but would also have significant flow-on effects to other parts of the economy.
“Cargo is a really important element,” Mr Brown said.
“Our research shows that a new route of a daily wide-body international flight generates around $70 million per annum, per flight, and generates over 60 new jobs.
“It’s an investment that has many benefits in terms of what it brings to the region, because it’s a fantastic stimulus for the economy, and gives the people of WA the opportunity to visit another part of the world and another hub to connect to.”
Mr Brown said Perth Airport would continue to play a key role in bringing together relevant stakeholders to strengthen the business case for airlines and continue to fill not only the seats on China-bound aircraft, but also its cargo holds.
Second tier cities, such as Chengdu, Hangzhou or Zhengzhou, are also key areas of interest for Perth Airport, as further connections would increase the desire for travel, and create better awareness of WA.
Mr Brown said part of the awareness challenge was the need to refresh WA’s branding as a destination to reflect the fact that the state is a unique tourism proposition, and highly differentiated from other cities in Australia.
“We’ve had China Eastern Airlines down to visit us, and those visits have truly highlighted the fact that the narrative for WA needs to be refreshed,” he said.
“People still think of the Perth of old, but it’s a modern city that’s well connected with fantastic food and wine, and a lot of produce that’s grown in the region you can actually eat in the restaurants.
“You’ve got a city with a fantastic national park in it, you’ve got vineyards on the doorstep in the Swan Valley and in a few hours you are down to Margaret River.
“There is a lot that this state has to offer, there really is the whole of Australia in one state, and we might not be the first port of call for Chinese visitors, but for those travellers who have been to Australia before, to come and sample something that’s new and unspoiled, WA has got a lot to offer in that field.”
Like Tourism Western Australia, Mr Brown said Perth Airport was evaluating how it could use social media to attract Chinese visitors.
Mr Brown said Perth Airport was in the early stages of developing a presence on one of China’s largest video streaming sites, YouKu Toudou, which is owned by Alibaba and has an estimated 500 million monthly users.
“It’s actually a very crowded market, every country in the world is trying to attract the outbound Chinese market,” Mr Brown said.
“We need to have that visualisation to show people the great things we have to offer.
“We are that undiscovered part of Australia, and Chinese people often want to get away from busy, they want to enjoy the fresh air and the blue skies and experience everything we have to offer without having to queue.
“That’s what we have to capitalise on, the free independent traveller that’s had their first Australian experience in a group setting, but now they want to come out and explore on their own, go out and see things for the first time, things that the masses haven’t seen.”