Aviation access is the only thing holding WA back from becoming a mecca for Chinese tourists, according to one of the state’s biggest tour operators.
Adam Barnard has been preparing for the China tourist boom for the better part of a decade.
Mr Barnard, founder of Western Australia’s largest coach and bus tour operator, ADAMS, first travelled to China on business in 2008 and, since then, has been increasingly tuned into the growing opportunities emanating from the country’s ever-mobile middle class.”
“I’ve been going there at least once a year since then,” Mr Barnard told Australia China Business Review.
“I’ve always had a fascination for China, I’ve had a fantastic time each time that I’ve been there, and I’ve watched it grow from being the only European person walking around the entire city in some of the places I was going, to now being like Sydney or Melbourne.
“I knew the opportunities that were going to come from China just by observing it going as a guest on these tours and factory visits with suppliers and bus manufacturers.
“It was very simple to tell that China was going to change the world order.”
The latest data from the Chinese Academy of Social Science backs Mr Barnard’s view – with a record $4.5 billion domestic and overseas trips made by Chinese tourists in 2017.
And while most of the Chinese travellers that made it to Australian shores visited either Sydney or Melbourne, Mr Barnard said the changing behaviour of tourists to seek increasingly unique experiences gave WA the opportunity to become a go-to destination.
“They are all living very busy lives and the opportunity for natural beauty and natural experiences is well recognised as growing at an exponential rate,” Mr Barnard said.
“Western Australia, in my opinion, offers an extraordinary tourism product – blue skies, incredible beaches, wine, food, it is just an extraordinary state.
We know that we have an amazing product here, particularly for Chinese visitors.
“If you go to Sydney or Melbourne, you get a big-city experience.
“Now there are some beautiful places, there are some great places in Sydney and they do love those natural experiences, but here, our entire offering is extraordinary natural experiences, not just one or two places that the other cities have.
“We want to give them something else, and what has been our weakness will become our strength.”
At ADAMS, Mr Barnard said the company had developed a range of tours and experiences tailored for Chinese travellers, from Rottnest Island to Lancelin and the Pinnacles, to the majestic natural wonders of the Kimberley and also taking in the gourmet delights of the state’s South West.
“We have Chinese-speaking drivers, guides and staff, we have translated all our brochures into Chinese. We are ready, but we don’t have the numbers to justify it,” he said.
“It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg – we are way ahead of the curve, but we realise that we are constrained by the aviation situation.”
Mr Barnard said if the WA state government did not secure additional direct flights to the Chinese mainland, the state’s tourism opportunity could become a big tourism problem.
For many years the Achilles heel of WA’s tourism sector was hotel capacity, particularly through the heights of the mining investment boom of 2008 to 2013.
Hotel rooms were scarce and filled with travelling executives, leaving no room for leisure tourists to experience the state’s evolving hospitality offering or its natural wonders.
Today, WA is in the middle of the biggest tourism development boom in the state’s history, with billions being invested in new hotels across Perth.
Research from the Tourism Council of Western Australia showed the current construction cycle for Perth hotels recently passed its mid-point, with 2,019 hotel rooms created since 2012.
There are a further 1,877 rooms under construction, across eight properties.
“The amount of capacity that is being added to Perth is so extreme, that if something is not done soon by way of aviation access, then there is going to be some major problems in the hotel industry,” Mr Barnard said.
“Not only have they got this extra capacity, they’ve also got Airbnb, which has been growing at a rate of around 4 per cent a month.
“We may have around 10,000 extra rooms available now through Airbnb alone, so they have had a massive impact.
“There is opportunity from that, we now have the lowest room rates in the entire country and we have, without a shadow of a doubt, the best hotel stock in Australia.
“It is extraordinary, but it will be a complete failure if we don’t get the aviation access sorted.”
Mr Barnard said the fact that Perth only had one direct flight to the Chinese mainland that did not even run for a full seven days per week was the only thing holding the state back in attracting Chinese tourists.
He said one of the government’s top priorities needed to be securing a commitment from China Eastern to set up a permanent Perth to Shanghai route, following the announcement last year the airline would trial the flights starting from October.
“Sydney, for example, has got seven airlines flying in there and we have one that doesn’t even fly seven days,” he said.
“At the moment, a lot of the group inbound travel is coming through Singapore Airlines, there is a direct flight from Guangzhou, but we have found that travellers from Shanghai or Beijing are not willing to fly through Guangzhou to come here, they want to fly direct in.
“If you have a look at Adelaide, which has flights seven days a week, it’s just extraordinary that we don’t.
“This has been a result of the financial situation in WA, and a lack of action from the previous government.”
Mr Barnard said the Mark McGowan government, had been more committed to the industry than any of its predecessors, but nevertheless called for more support for the tourism sector, primarily in the form of an aviation development fund.
“The constraint is all about aviation, there is nothing else holding this destination back but aviation,” he said.
“What the government needs to do a better job of is making the taxpayer understand that tourism is one of the only things that the government spends money on that provides an economic return.
“If the government can help people understand that for every dollar they invest in tourism, it will generate an economic return of $28 for this state, just $20 million would change everything.
“If people understand the return, then people won’t criticise. There are better places to spend money than marketing, but people have to understand that’s what pays for the hospitals, and the roads and the schools.
“The Chinese visitors that come here are absolutely blown away by what we offer.
“When you look at the infrastructure that’s been built, Elizabeth Quay, Yagan Square, the revitalisation of the city, the food and beverage, the small bars, our city is a vibrant city with so much capacity now.
“The only thing we lack is more visitors to make it more vibrant.”