17 May 2018
African Tourism Expo Highlights Six Ways to Woo Chinese Visitors
With sub-Saharan Africa expected to be welcoming 50 million tourists a year by 2022, the focus is now on attracting the highest-spending visitors, with the new generation of affluent, digital-savvy Chinese travellers topping everybody's list.
After something of a recent dip, China and Africa are tipped to be at the forefront of the tourism sector's widely-anticipated resurgence. Overall, the two are expected to account for a growing proportion of the 1.5 billion leisure travel trips made every year, either as a source of tourists or as a primary destination.
The implications for Africa's tourism sector, in particular, were addressed at the World Travel Market Africa, a three-day trade event for tourism professionals that recently concluded in Cape Town. Highlighting the scale of the industry during the course of the expo, Christy Tawlii, a Senior Analyst in Euromonitor's South Africa office, said: "Tourism in sub-Saharan Africa accounts for a hefty 4% of the region's total GDP, representing revenue of more than US$70 billion.
"Tourist inflows to the region have again been gaining pace after the industry slump of 2014. In line with this, inbound arrivals to sub-Saharan Africa have increased by 7%, rising from 27.4 million in 2016 to some 29.4 million in 2017.
"This growth trend is – and will continue to be – almost entirely driven by mainland China, the fastest-growing source country in the world in terms of inbound travel to Africa. According to our research, that rate of growth is only set to accelerate."
The distribution of arrivals, however, is far from even across the continent. South Africa, for instance, once Africa's leading tourist choice, has proven to have little appeal for Chinese visitors, with many heading to one of the continent's other popular tourist destinations instead, notably Kenya, Tanzania or Mauritius.
South Africa aside, a number of factors are seen as driving the surge in Chinese visitors to sub-Saharan Africa, most notably changing travel preferences and improved connections. At the same time, the wider region has benefitted from a number of internal and external changes.
Shifting Chinese Tourism Preferences
Addressing delegates at the event, Charl Albertyn, a Senior Associate with Cape Town-based Create Consulting, specialists in travel trade public relations, said: "Our research has shown a surge in the number of digitally driven fully-independent travellers [FITs] across China. Typically, these tend to be millennials in search of a new kind of travel destination or experience. This has seen Africa become one of the destinations of choice for many FITs, who tend to be averse to conventional group travel.
"These FITs are very much the future of Chinese travel. They now account for 40% of the Chinese outbound tourism market and were responsible for almost all of the increase in Chinese overseas travel in 2017."
Among the other key trends Albertyn identified in the outbound Chinese travel market was the near-universal use of digital media among younger Chinese travellers and higher-income mainland consumers, all of whom are looking for a less traditional travel experience.
Expanding upon this, he said: "Chinese travellers are beginning to break the mould and are starting to seek travel destinations beyond the usual trio – Asia, Europe and the US. Among the less conventional destinations to have clearly emerged is Africa, a development driven by the increased number of direct flights, reduced visa restrictions and a distinct novelty factor."
South Africa, however, has clearly failed to appeal to this new generation of Chinese tourists. In fact, in 2017, the number of Chinese tourists visiting South Africa was down by 17% year-on-year.
Addressing just how the country recorded a downturn amid an overall increase in the number of Chinese tourists visiting Africa, Albertyn said: "Basically, it stems from the failure of the South African tourist authority and its tourism industry to understand the fundamental needs of the Chinese traveller.
"According to a survey by Dragon Trail Marketing [a travel technology and digital marketing agency with offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Xian], one of the most frequent internet search phrases used by Chinese travellers when choosing a destination is 'few people'. South Africa, which fits this bill admirably, given its vast, remote nature reserves and unspoilt scenic beauty, has totally failed to capitalise on this.
"Another problem for the country is that many Chinese tourists primarily associate South Africa with crime. The country has totally failed to address this concern."
As Chinese travellers are expected to make 154 million outbound trips during 2018, with just under 3% (approximately 4.5 million) of these terminating in Africa, South Africa is clearly losing out in a big way. The problem has been compounded by the strict biometric visa requirements the country introduced in 2014, which further deterred would-be Chinese visitors. Although the rules were subsequently relaxed, it is expected to be at least five years before the negative perception caused by the move begins to dissipate.
In the meantime, the Chinese travel operators who abandoned South Africa on account of the visa requirements are still steering mainland tourists towards Tanzania, Kenya, Mauritius or the Seychelles. As a direct consequence, it is estimated that East Africa has seen a 35% increase in its annual number of Chinese tourists since 2015.
Six Key African Tourism Trends
In terms of the trends currently driving sub-Saharan Africa's tourism sector, delegates at the conference identified six particular factors as having come to the forefront of late – urban appeal, luxury, short-term rental accommodation, overseas visitors, digital travellers and diversification.
In terms of urban appeal, it was generally noted that many of the region's cities have become travel brands and destinations of choice, with many of them being viewed quite differently from their related national master brand. This has seen many visitors, including a substantial number of Chinese tourists, booking city-specific tours, with Cape Town, Nairobi and Lagos seen as having a particular allure.
Until quite recently, luxury was not seen as part of the appeal of many sub-Saharan African vacations. Of late, though, the luxury and super-luxury resort and hotel sector has enjoyed explosive growth, a development spurred by a surge in the number of highly affluent tourists visiting the region. In 2017, it was estimated that some 30,000 ultra-high-net-worth individuals – defined as those with assets of $10 million or more – made at least one leisure trip to sub-Saharan Africa. Of these, the majority opted for South Africa, with Kenya and Mauritius respectively the second and third most popular options.
The relatively recent arrival of Airbnb, the online short-term rental accommodation booking service, in Africa has proved popular with younger, tech-savvy tourists, changing the visitor demographic in some regions. It has not been a universally welcomed development, however, with many hotels seeing occupancy levels drop.
The focus on overseas – non-African – visitors has also been a major change for the industry. Although the number of domestic tourists remains significant, it is those from outside the continent that are the biggest spenders by far. As a result, every aspect of Africa's tourism sector is now geared to wooing and servicing these cash-rich overseas visitors, with Chinese visitors particularly targeted.
Hand-in-hand with this bid to super-serve non-African tourists is the recognition of the huge role digital technology now plays in researching, selecting, paying for and recording travel experiences. In response to this, the tourism sector in many African countries is gearing up to service online transactions, including adding-in the facility to handle China-specific payment options, such as Union Pay and WeChat Pay.
Digitally-savvy or not, one other change that characterises the current wave of Africa's inbound tourists is that they are no longer coming solely in search of a safari / big-game experience, although this remains a popular option. This has prompted many African countries to begin to forefront other options, including city tours, ecotourism and cultural experiences. There are also signs that medical tourism – long a feature of the Southeast Asian travel sector – is starting to take off in Africa, with South Africa the destination of choice.
For those in Africa's tourism sector who take these six factors on board, the future looks particularly promising. With strong growth predicted over the next four years, sub-Saharan Africa is expected to welcome more than 50 million overseas tourists a year by 2022.
World Travel Market (WTM) Africa 2018 took place from 18-20 April at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.
Mark Ronan, Special Correspondent, Cape Town