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Africa Gears Up for Potential Boom in Chinese Tourism

Speaking at the World Travel Market (WTM) Africa conference, tourism expert Marcus Lee emphasised the immense potential of the Chinese travel market and outlined strategies for African destinations to better attract these lucrative tourists.

According to Lee, who is the CEO of China Travel Online, China is projected to see 130 million outbound travellers in 2024, more than double the volume of 2023. “China is back as the world’s largest outbound source market,” said Lee. “We were in lockdown for three years, but now we are poised to lead the global tourism recovery.”

Lee noted that China was the last major economy to reopen its borders, but is now ready to reclaim its position as the number one spender in global tourism. “When Chinese travel, we don’t just buy for ourselves, we buy gifts for our family and friends too,” he explained. “This makes us an extremely valuable source market, even as China’s economy slows down.”

To capture a share of this booming market, Lee stressed that the key priorities for African destinations are easing visa policies and addressing safety and security concerns. “Even buyers at WTM Africa this year couldn’t make it because they didn’t get their visas on time,” he said. “We need to make it as easy as possible for Chinese tourists to visit.”

Destinations that have succeeded in this regard, such as Malaysia, Singapore, and even parts of Eastern Europe, have already surpassed their 2019 Chinese tourist arrival levels, noted Lee. “These places have effectively communicated that they are safe and welcoming for Chinese travellers.”

For Africa, Lee recommended targeting the affluent, luxury-seeking Chinese tourist interested in experiences like wildlife, nature, and cultural immersion. He emphasised the importance of promoting specific regions and attractions, rather than just the continent as a whole.

“Africa is not homogeneous – each destination and region needs to showcase its unique selling points to stand out,” said Lee. “The next peak travel season for Chinese tourists is the summer holiday in July and August, so that’s a prime time to attract these travellers.”

However, Lee pointed out that the number of Chinese visitors to African countries is still relatively low, comprising less than 2% of total outbound Chinese travellers. “There is immense untapped potential here,” he said.

To better cater to Chinese tourists, Lee stressed the importance of providing amenities and services tailored to their preferences. “Chinese travellers don’t often order food from hotel restaurants because they don’t understand the menu,” he explained. “Simple things like having Chinese signage and translations can make a big difference.”

Lee also highlighted challenges faced by Chinese tourists, such as poor Wi-Fi connectivity and long queues upon arrival at airports like Cape Town. “These are the basic things that need to be fixed to become ‘China-Ready’,” he said.

Regarding promotion, Lee noted that Chinese consumers have a vastly different digital landscape compared to the West. “We don’t have access to Google, YouTube, or other platforms that are commonly used globally,” he said. “Reaching the Chinese market requires a dedicated China-focused digital strategy.”

Lee also observed a shift in Chinese travel preferences over the past decade. “Ten years ago, Chinese tourists were primarily interested in shopping,” he said. “Today, they are seeking more immersive, experiential travel – things like visiting local villages and learning traditional cooking techniques.”

Critically, Lee emphasised that language barriers must be addressed, as 95% of Chinese travellers do not speak English fluently. “If your website or brochures are only in English, you’re effectively invisible to us,” he said. “And Chinese tourists are unlikely to complain directly – instead, they’ll write negative reviews that can go viral on social media.”

Lee provided an example of one hotel where the Wi-Fi didn’t work, leading the Chinese guests to check out immediately and warn their friends on WeChat not to book that hotel. “This kind of viral backlash can be devastating,” he warned.

Looking ahead, Lee encouraged African tourism stakeholders to invest in China-Ready certification programmes, develop dedicated Chinese-language digital marketing, and organise targeted roadshows and trade events in key Chinese markets.

“The Chinese tourism market is primed for a comeback, but destinations need to be proactive in their approach,” concluded Lee. “Those who get it right will reap the rewards of this valuable source of visitors.”

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