Wave of Chinese tourists expected

Over 100 million Chinese tourists are expected to be traveling annually by 2020 and one of their preferred destinations is turning out to be the Middle East.

Countries in the region are scrambling to meet the boon as the tourism trade moves to get back on its feet after the lull brought on by the turmoil of the Arab Spring.

At the recent ATM Dubai Tourism Fair it was announced that just last year some 70 million Chinese went abroad. Tourism professionals at the conference emphasized the significance of having tourism industry workers with Chinese language skills, as well as the food and kitchen quality and culture to lure Chinese tourists.

Lucy Chuang, managing director of Global Sino said the Chinese outbound market was being helped by countries being given “approved destination” status by Chinese authorities. The coveted status allows Chinese nationals to travel in groups rather than as individuals.

The UAE received approved destination status in 2009 and more than 300,000 Chinese visited there the following year, spending $334 million, according to MasterCard survey figures. Chuang said Chinese visitors to the UAE have since grown 50 percent annually.

Chuang stated a typical Chinese leisure preference was a three-night package with a different quality hotel for each night and she urged the region to promote this tiered concept to the market, particularly during the off-peak summer season.

Arab Spring unrest took a heavy toll on Middle Eastern tourism last year as unrest erupted in major regional tourism destinations like Tunisia and Egypt as well as Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. While international tourist arrivals grew by 4% worldwide in 2011, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region they dropped 8.8%, with the worst-hit countries reporting double-digit drops, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Egypt’s Tourism Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdul Noor said this week that airport fees would be cut and new tourism projects such as eco-tourism were being launched to lure Chinese, as well as Indians, Russians and Japanese.

In Israel, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of Chinese tourists. Last year alone saw a 29% increase over the previous year. While that number was just 17,157 out of over 3 million incoming tourists to Israel, it is growing. In the first quarter of this year, 6,000 Chinese tourists visited Israel, an increase of 14% over last year, Israel’s Tourism Ministry figures show.

“Two years ago we opened an office in Beijing where all it is doing is promoting Israel as a destination,” Pini Shani the head of the Overseas Department at Israel’s Tourism Ministry told The Media Line.

Shani said guides were being trained who spoke to the Chinese in their own language. He said hotels and airport staff were also briefed on how to accommodate and host the Far East visitors.

“It is natural that the Chinese will start to travel. The income in China is growing. They see what is happening in the West and their curiosity is growing to see the outside world,” Shani said.

The UNWTO has predicted that within the next five years China, with a population of some 1.3 billion, will be the number one country in terms of both sending and receiving tourists.

Professionals at the conference in Dubai said that desert safaris and shopping were priorities with designer goods high on the shopping list of the brand-conscious Chinese travelers. They added that while twin-bedded rooms were the number one request, an essential in that room was a kettle to facilitate the preparation of hot instant noodles or rice.

With nearly 485 million Chinese with access to the Internet, they also suggested that effective use of social media and the Internet was essential to tap into the potential Chinese tourist market.

Dubai announced on Monday that it would also be issuing multiple entry visas for Chinese and other tourists who were arriving by cruise ship, thus reducing fees and encouraging more arrivals.

Sean Staunton, vice chairman of Dubai Duty Free, said that while Chinese travelers made up less than 4 percent of the total numbers of visitors, they accounted for 18 percent of the duty-free company’s annual turnover of $1.46 billion. This included 42 percent of watch sales, 32 percent of cosmetics and 20 percent of sunglasses.

The China Tourism Academy said they expected Chinese will spend as much as $80 billion abroad this year. This is amazing considering that outbound Chinese tourists were virtually non-existent just two decades ago. Thanks to their massive population and rising incomes the number of Chinese traveling abroad is expected to continue its rise.

While the bulk of Chinese tourism is headed to the Far East, the Middle East is expected to attract quite a few.

“Israel can offer many things that can’t be found elsewhere,” Shani said, citing the Dead Sea, Christian holy sites and a swank Tel Aviv.

“The Chinese are also very curious of the Jewish brain and can find many examples of it in Israel and we know that their satisfaction rate is very high for tourists that come from China to Israel,” Shani said. “China is one of the sources of growth of tourism to Israel and we will see the results in the coming years.”