China prepared to help with tourism development

Last month, China published a detailed new policy paper on Latin America and the Caribbean in which it set out a new approach to its relations with the Americas.

The document, which has real breadth and ambition, potentially offers, perhaps for the first time, an agenda around which the region can develop a practical bilateral dialogue with Beijing that can take relations far beyond where they presently are.

Although a minor aspect of its whole, the paper is particularly interesting on tourism, focussing on its significance in ways that few other nations do.

It makes clear that ‘China will encourage tourism authorities and enterprises on both sides to introduce tourism resources and products to each other and expand tourism cooperation’. It goes on to say that China will explore and increase its role in developing ‘policies to promote twoway tourism, and support the negotiation for more direct flights between aviation authorities of the two sides.’ It also says that China intends to work with consumer protection departments in the region and Latin America to give priority ‘to the protection of consumer rights for international travellers.’

What this appears to do is open a door for governments, tourist boards, the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) and the Caribbean Hotels and Tourism Association (CHTA), to pursue with the Chinese how practically they might support the gradual development of a Chinese visitor market.

In recent years, almost every Caribbean tourist board has considered how best to obtain a share of what the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) says involves around 117m outbound tourists spending about US$498 billion overseas; numbers they forecast to double by 2020. However, their progress has been limited and possibly even illusory.

While some destinations have claimed year on year growth in Chinese arrivals, it is far from clear that these numbers really represent tourists, as the figures appear to include the statistically significant number of Chinese people coming to the region in relation to many public and private projects the country now has underway.

At present the biggest problem is airlift. There is not enough demand to fill direct regular flights to the region, so anyone visiting the region from China or coming to join a cruise ship has first to fly to the nearest point. This means Houston or New York, and then travelling on, or alternatively using Air China’s same-plane service from Beijing via Montreal to Havana. In each case the overall flying time is at best around 20 hours.

This means that the only practical solution at present, when it comes to encouraging stay over Chinese visitors to go anywhere other than Havana, is to develop, as Jamaica is now doing, multidestination vacations for those who may already have decided to travel to Cuba.

As this column has observed before, a more promising medium-term option, when it comes to numbers, may be the opportunity to work towards encouraging Chinese arrivals by cruise ship.

China has been gradually developing a cruise industry in the Pacific and plans to build its own cruise ships, offering perhaps the longer-term possibility for home-porting Chinese vessels for Chinese visitors out of Cuba or Jamaica. Although embryonic, Chinese cruising potentially offers a practical way to bring Chinese visitors to the region in large numbers, perhaps initially out of Miami on existing services into the region.

This could help circumvent challenges that the IDB identified as needing to be addressed in its recent report ‘Chinese Rise in the Caribbean – What Does It Mean for Caribbean Stakeholders’. For the Caribbean to capture more of the Chinese market, the bank said significant changes in approach are required, including a streamlined or visa exemption procedure; more five-star hotel properties; better security; Chinese cuisine; language skills; sensitivity to different cultural norms; and quality shopping.

China’s new policy paper speaks to a sector in which the Caribbean has genuine advantage. It suggests that individual countries and representative regional tourism bodies should make an early start in exploring the Chinese Government’s new thinking.