Australia Tourist operators look to Japan, India amid warnings Chinese tourists unlikely to flock back after COVID-19
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A tourism expert warns Chinese travellers are unlikely to return to Australia in the same numbers as before the pandemic unless diplomatic relations between the two countries improve.
Sam Huang, from Edith Cowan University in Perth, said the Chinese government held a lot of sway over the country's outbound tourism, which did not bode well for Australia.
"The current situation of the Australia-China relationship, I would say that would be a big barrier for our future tourism recovery," he told The Business.
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Professor Huang's warning comes as tourism operators in some of the Australian destinations particularly popular with Chinese tourists start to plan for when international borders reopen.
In north-east Tasmania, the purple flowers at the famous Bridestowe Estate lavender farm will not be in full bloom until summer, but owner Robert Ravens has already been sowing the seeds for a future beyond the Chinese market.
"To me, the next steps for tourism … from our business perspective [are] Japan, number one, Indian subcontinent number two, and then perhaps thinking publicly and openly about the impact of Indonesia and Korea on tourism," Mr Ravens said."We will get large numbers of Chinese visitors into Tasmania, but they shouldn't be always the focus of our conversations and our attention."
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His stance may surprise some considering his business's success with the Chinese market, but Mr Ravens said Bridestowe never deliberately targeted a particular demographic.
In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the estate and was gifted a lavender-filled purple toy bear by the government.
"That then, of course, legitimised the bear as a symbol of the link between Tasmania and China," Mr Ravens remembered.
It added to demand for "Bobbie the bear" among both tourists visiting Tasmania and online buyers from China.
"That was what seems like a long time ago now," Mr Ravens said.
"We started to notice a cooling off in the quality of the relationship."
Chinese tourists big business for Australia
Chinese tourists were big business — China was Australia's largest inbound tourist market for both arrivals and spending in 2019, according to Tourism Australia.
There were 758,551 holiday arrivals from China in the year to December 2019,.
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Chinese holidaymakers spent $3.3 billion in Australia over that year.
Along the Tasmanian east coast, in the town of Bicheno, Jacqui Laning saw the immediate impact of the pandemic on her business in early 2020.
Typically many Chinese tourists visited her nature park, home to Tasmanian devils and kangaroos, each year during the Golden Week holiday in January and February.
"We were getting up to six, seven bus tours a week, if not more," she said.
"That got switched off straightaway and [there were] a lot of cancellations as well."
Diplomacy and tourism closely linked
As diplomatic tensions escalated last year,, warning citizens against travelling to Australia.
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese embassy and consulates in Australia remind Chinese citizens to be extra careful about the local security risks and be cautious about travelling to Australia in the near future," the advice said.
It followed similar messages to Chinese students considering studying in Australia.
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Professor Huang said these kinds of government statements could have a significant effect on tourism.
"I think Chinese tourists will be influenced by some government directives," he said.
"If you look at the industry, I would also see it's possible for the Chinese government to influence industry practices.
"We should really learn a lesson from that. Unless we can build a good relationship with the Chinese government, we should not expect they will send tourists to us.
"The country-to-country relationship will be playing a big role in future international tourism."
Professor Huang said addressing the issue would require a top-down approach from the government, saying individual operators were unable to influence the situation to a great degree.
However, Tourism Minister Dan Tehan downplayed the concerns and said feedback from on the ground in China was positive.
"Our tourism officials are working very closely with operators in the Chinese market, and everything we're hearing is that there's still a real keenness from Chinese tourists to travel to Australia," Mr Tehan said.
Japan, India in sights of operators
While the reopening of international borders is still unlikely in the near term, operators have been preparing for a new tourism landscape when overseas visitors return.
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Tasmanian lavender farm owner Robert Ravens recently attended a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Hobart and described it as an "important restart" for the state's relationship with Japan.
And Mr Ravens said he had noticed an increase in visitors who have moved from India and Sri Lanka to Australia visiting Tasmania.
"It suggests to me that the real life after COVID might be to think about the Indian subcontinent, along with Japan as the potential source of new revenue," he said.
"In other words, not ignore China, but to refocus on a broader base across South-East Asia."
A report by Tourism Australia for the month of May found sentiment about international travel, and Australia as a destination, was particularly positive among Europeans, Canadians, Koreans and New Zealanders.
However, would-be travellers in other markets, including China, India and Japan, were feeling less confident.
Indian survey respondents were positive about travel to Australia, with 75 per cent stating the country was on top of their list of places to travel to once the crisis was over, but most felt cautious about travelling internationally for a while.
Among Japanese people, there was a slight increase in booking intentions in May but still a lot of hesitation, with 55 per cent saying they would be cautious for a while and 31 per cent not able to see themselves travelling internationally in the future.
Chinese respondents' perception of Australia as a safe place to travel to was down from 57 per cent deeming it safe in April to 48 per cent in May.
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However, half said Australia was top of their list of destinations to visit once the crisis was over.
Australia's 'wonderful products' haven't changed
In Hobart, some domestic travellers have been tucking into plates of oysters.
They are very different from the busloads of tourists Justin Goc, the manager of Barilla Bay Oyster Farm, used to welcome.
Fresh seafood, including some delicacies particularly popular among Chinese visitors, has been a major drawcard.
"We had what they call candy abalone, or essentially dried abalone, which was highly sought after," Mr Goc said.
Signage outlining the symbolism of abalone in Chinese culture and the drying process hints at the pre-COVID tourist experience.
"I think most people, the average Australian and Chinese person, don't really delve into the politics," Mr Goc said.
"Ultimately, Tasmania's produce is highly sought after and I believe they'll come back once everything is back to normal, in terms of from a COVID perspective."
Jacqui Laning at East Coast Natureworld said international travellers accounted for up to 70 per cent of visitors before the pandemic.
She has been eagerly awaiting the return of guests not only from China, but also the US and Canada.
"They do love our Australian native animals … so we have a lot to showcase for our overseas guests," she said.
The Tourism Minister agreed.
"The wonderful products that we have here in Australia have not changed," Mr Tehan said.
"If anything, they've been enhanced in many ways through the pandemic, and so we're very optimistic that international tourists will want to come back in incredibly strong numbers."
However, Professor Huang said businesses particularly focused on catering for Chinese tourists, for example tour operators with Mandarin-speaking guides, would need to update their approach.
"I think they may need to change their strategies, maybe not really being too reliant on the traditional channel … diversify a little bit in their operation, relying on online channels, and then they may refocus to individual travellers rather than group travellers," he said.
"We are at a crisis point but it could also be an opportunity if they can innovate their business practice."
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