Geraldton's tourism sector is cashing in on a local government-led initiative to leverage sister city relationships in China, with direct flights to Zhanjiang being explored as the Mid West town increasingly becomes a favoured destination for Chinese tourists.
The City of Greater Geraldton has long had strong export links with China, highlighted by the region’s lucrative lobster fishing industry and large-scale iron ore mining operations – with latest estimates indicating around $6 billion has been invested in the region by Chinese enterprises.
But in recent years Geraldton has become popular with the emerging adventurous class of Chinese tourists, known in the industry as free independent travellers, attracted by the changing colours of nearby Port Gregory’s Pink Lake, as well as the largely untouched natural beauty of the Abrolhos Islands.
Mayor Shane Van Styn said just six years ago, Geraldton was a complete unknown for Chinese travellers.
However, after a concerted effort by the local government authority to achieve closer links with sister cities Zhanjiang and Zhoushan, Geraldton’s Chinese tourism sector is taking off.
Mr Van Styn said he had been to China six times in the past five years, with those diplomatic visits helping put Geraldton on the map.
“Here in Geraldton, all of our lobster – a very large part of our economy – is exported to China, as is a very large proportion of our mineral wealth,” he told Australia China Business Review.
“And we have significant Chinese investment in Geraldton in both agriculture and mining, so it seemed sensible to go and build on those relationships and see how we can grow them.
“We focused on where we have direct trading relationships and existing connections first and foremost, and that made it quite easy explain to them who we were.”
Mr Van Styn said the China push had been complemented by tourism and hospitality operators in Geraldton collectively embracing China Ready Accreditation, a global system that identifies products and services tailored for Chinese consumers.
“China Ready accreditation certainly makes it easier to attract people down our way, if they know they can get access to their own language and people that are respectful of their different customs and culture,” he said.
“We’ve had restaurants get China Ready Accreditation and put in Chinese menus, we’ve also put in Chinese signage at our airport.
“It’s been a very good initiative, we’ve seen particularly air charter businesses thrive from that accreditation – we now have about 3,500 air charters booked per year, which could be two or three people on a plane at a time, to tour around Geraldton, the Abrolhos Islands and Pink Lake.”
The next step for Geraldton, Mr Van Styn said, would be to upgrade the airport to facilitate international flights.
The City of Geraldton is seeking $10 million in federal funds for the $24 million upgrade, with the state government to contribute $6.5 million, and $7.5 million to be paid by the local council.
Mr Van Styn said initial discussions were under way with China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines, with the possibility of trial flights once the airport could handle larger aircraft piquing interest.
“They are keen to get direct flights and bypass the capital cities,” Mr Van Styn said.
“They are out of the box thinkers, the Chinese airlines, and they’re keen to see that air market opened up, both for freight and for tourists.
“It would be a massive game changer and something that we are very close to being able to achieve already, and now we have Chinese interest ready and willing to have a crack at it.”
In Zhanjiang, the Guangdong Provincial People’s Congress announced last month that construction of a ¥1.6 billion ($320 million) new international airport was its top priority in a comprehensive development pipeline for 2018.
Once completed in 2020, Zhanjiang International Airport will have 30 gates and 58,000 square metres of terminals, with the additional capacity a key opportunity for locations such as Geraldton to establish new routes.
The Guangdong Provincial Government is also focusing on how it can improve imports of mineral commodities and food products at Zhanjiang Port.
Mr Van Styn said the key to furthering economic growth opportunities from Geraldton’s sister city status with Zhanjiang, or any other Chinese city, would be to continue to focus on what Australia could give back to China.
“When deciding on sister cities, it isn’t just about trying to make a dollar,” he said.
“Businesses are good at working out where to earn a dollar, but you have to build a relationship, you have to build the friendships, the trust and the rapport, and you’ve got to have an exchange of ideas and culture as well before you get down to business.
“I see the Chinese as putting that first and foremost, you become friends before you do business.
“We see that as important. We have identified in our sister city and strategic city relationships people that are similar to us, whether that’s in city relations and the like or whether it is being port cities.
“But finding out what it is that China wants and demonstrating interest in what we could give back is also important.
“Developing a two-way street is just as important as the cheque books.”