China: a tourism opportunity for the Caribbean?

At the end of last month, China published a detailed 16-page document, ‘China’s Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean’, which sets out a new approach to relations between the Americas and the world’s second largest economy.

The document warrants close reading by governments and the private sector as it describes in considerable detail future Chinese policy towards the Americas on a wide range of topics including the way China sees relations developing; its desire for high level governmental and political dialogue; the development of reciprocity in trade, including through free trade agreements; the creation of Chinese financial institutions across the Americas; co-operation on everything from agriculture through to social development; and the establishment of what it describes as closer people-topeople ties.

Although this brief description scarcely does justice to the document’s breadth or ambition, it is clear from reading it that it 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.

There is, of course, much to be written on this subject, but the paper is particularly interesting on tourism, given the industry’s immediate importance to much of the region.

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 co-operation.’ 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 Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), to pursue with the Chinese how they might practically 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.

Unfortunately, up to now success in doing so may be largely illusory.

While some destinations have claimed year-on-year growth in Chinese arrivals, it is far from clear that these numbers represent tourists, as the figures appear to include the statistically significant number of Chinese people coming to the region in relation to the 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 Caribbean from China or coming to join a cruise ship has first to fly to the nearest point. This means, for the most part, using Air China to Houston or New York, then
travelling on with the same US carrier, United, 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 makes the only practical solution at present, when it comes to encouraging stay-over Chinese visitors to go anywhere in the Caribbean other than Havana, to develop, as Jamaica is now doing, multi-destination vacations for Chinese or other visitors such as Russians, who may already have decided to travel to Cuba.

The idea is well advanced, with Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Edmund Bartlett, saying recently that he is hoping to have arrangements in place soon for multi-destination marketing, airlift and possibly a single-visa arrangement for the Chinese with Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

More promising in the medium term when it comes to numbers, however, may be the opportunity to begin to encourage 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, in ways that circumvent or address other challenges that face the region when it comes to meeting their needs.

AS IDB observed 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, significant changes in approach are required. They include streamlined or visa exemptions for Chinese nationals, more five-star hotel properties, better personal and property security, offerings of Chinese cuisine, the hiring of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers as staff and as tour operators, sensitising the industry to Chinese cultural norms, developing marketing materials and signage in Mandarin, and offering more price-competitive shopping experiences.

These are all areas, China’s new policy document suggests, where it might be able to help regionally or bilaterally.

While the Caribbean is never going to be able to compete for Chinese visitors with London, Paris or New York when it comes to shopping or historic sightseeing – both key elements in almost all Chinese international travel at present– there are almost certainly niche opportunities to be developed. These include, for example, gambling, music, and as St Lucia has recently recognised, horse racing; China being one of the largest horse race betting markets in the world, with fortunes being spent on racing and related gambling.

Although co-operation on tourism is just one small aspect of China’s proposed new policy approach in the Americas, the language used in its paper speaks to a sector in which the Caribbean is genuinely able to make serious progress. It suggests that individual countries and representative regional tourism bodies should make an early start in exploring the Chinese Government’s new thinking.