Is the Chinese tourism market illusory?

The Chinese visitor market is distinctly different from what the Caribbean is used to. Despite this, almost every Caribbean tourist board has been giving consideration to the difficult question of how best to encourage its travellers to visit.

Apart from the obvious desire of all destinations to continue to diversify their source markets, the industry’s interest in the Chinese travel market has been driven by statistics. These suggest that China’s outward bound travel market, one of the most dynamic in the world, is growing by around 19 per cent per annum, with some 117m Chinese citizens travelling abroad in 2014 spending an estimated US$500bn.

This has meant that, in particular, countries at the western end of the Caribbean – Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic – are dedicating significant resources to visiting and researching how best to obtain a share of the market.

Unfortunately, to do so it has first to overcome some very basic problems. China is a long way away. This means that the primary challenge lies not in determining how best to attract Chinese visitors, but in having them arrive in the region.

Since at present there is not enough demand to fill direct regular flights to the region, 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 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 means that at present the only practical solution, when it comes to encouraging land-based Chinese visitors to go anywhere in the Caribbean other than Havana, is to develop, as Jamaica is now doing, multi-destination vacations for Chinese and other visitors such as Russians, who may already have decided to travel to Cuba.

The idea is now well advanced, with Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Edmund Bartlett, saying recently that he is hoping to have arrangements in place by the end of this year for multi-destination marketing, airlift and possibly a single-visa arrangement for Chinese and other visitors. The objective is, he says, to enable selling jointly a variety of two centre vacations in Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

The other potential initial source for significant numbers of Chinese arrivals would be by cruise ship.

China is presently gradually developing its own cruise industry out into the Pacific, and is planning to build its own cruise ships. However, their possible eventual location into the Caribbean, perhaps home-porting out of Havana, is still some way off.

For this reason, some in the industry suggest that it may be more attractive to consider working initially with the US and European cruise lines that sail the region to market selected Caribbean cruises. Many such cruise companies are already engaged with Chinese counterparts in developing cruises off China’s coast, and it may be that their presence in the Chinese cruise market could offer opportunities for cross-selling to higher-end more adventurous Chinese travellers, such as those Costa Line brought to Ocho Rios last year.

Regrettably, trying to understand China’s tourism potential for the region is complicated by the uncertainty surrounding just how many Chinese people are actually visiting the region as tourists. Although Jamaica and other Caribbean destinations have experienced year on year growth in Chinese arrivals the numbers may not be entirely as they seem.

While some of the growing numbers recorded will be tourists, it is far from clear how each country in the region addresses statistically the significant number of Chinese visiting the Caribbean in relation to many Chinese public and private projects now underway across the region. This is particularly likely to be the case in the Eastern Caribbean where access by air from China remains challenging.

Against this background, and assuming that the region has the capacity to address the quite different expectations and cultural requirements of Chinese visitors – few want the usual Caribbean offering of sun, sea and sand – part of the answer is likely to lie in paying much greater attention to a demand-led approach likely to appeal to interests of high-end visitors who also want the kudos of visiting what they see as an obscure, but culturally different destination.

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 – 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.

That said, my suspicion is that for many years yet Chinese tourism, in terms of numbers, will be illusory, not least because of the difficulties of access.

New initiatives and niche marketing may see a gradual rise in arrivals, but for me Chinese tourism seems likely to only become significant for the Caribbean at the point at which visitors begin to arrive on Chinese built and catered cruise ships.