CARIBBEAN VIEW: Making Caribbean Tourism ‘Chinese-ready’

By Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders

In recent years Chinese tourists have been touted as the new opportunity for growth of the industry in the Caribbean.  But how realistic is this prospect for countries in the Caribbean, many of which are now reliant on tourism for employment and foreign exchange income?

Until there is huge investment in marketing, airlift, tourism plant, and language training, the prospect of an appreciable and steady flow of Chinese tourists will remain remote.  If Caribbean countries genuinely want a share of Chinese tourism, rigorous work has to be undertaken now to make fundamental preparations for what is a long-term project.  The more that countries delay in making such preparations, the more distant will be the likelihood of attracting Chinese tourists.

The urgency of investing money in organising for a future Chinese tourist market coincides with a bad time for Caribbean countries, many of which are experiencing economic difficulties.  Several governments are simultaneously facing declining revenues and increasing costs to deliver goods and services to their populations.  The amount of money that is needed to invest in a future Chinese tourism market is simply not available to any individual government.  Nonetheless, it would be imprudent of Caribbean governments not to act together to start developing the Chinese market.

In this context, Caribbean governments should consider mandating a regional organisation such as the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) to undertake the preparatory work now on their collective behalf.  It might require the establishment of a special unit within CTO devoted to this work which would be considerable. 

The work would include a comprehensive study of what Chinese tourists would want from tours to Caribbean countries; the capacity of airports, including immigration and customs for dealing with Chinese visitors; facilities for moving large numbers of people on land tours; the ability of hotels to cater in the Chinese language for guests; signage in Chinese; the capability of police forces to protect Chinese tourists who tend to travel with cash and an array of electronic devices; the provision of Chinese cuisine; the elimination of visa entry requirements for Chinese tourists; and very importantly affordable air lift from Chinese cities to Caribbean countries.

The latter point concerning air lift is crucial.  The journey between China and the Caribbean is long and there are no direct airline services.  The need to break the journey either in North America or Europe increases the length of the journey and its cost, putting it out of the reach of the majority of Chinese tourists.

A recent report by the World Tourism Cities Federation (WTCF) provides instructive information on Chinese tourists.  The most significant statistic -– and the one that causes such allure for Chinese tourism –- is the amount of money spent by Chinese tourists.  In 2013, 98.19 million Chinese travelled abroad, spending US$128.7 billion -– an increase of 26.8% from 2012.  Of that huge sum of money, 57.6% was spent on shopping; 17.82% on accommodation; 10.88% on transport; 5.84% on food; and 7.4% on entertainment.  The number of Chinese touring abroad also increased by 18% in 2013 over the previous year.

However, there are many challenges to the task of pursuing a share of the large Chinese tourist spend.  For example, the majority of Chinese tourists -– 56.21% of them -– earn about US$1,600 per month and 22.26% earn US$2,400 or more.   These figures suggest that given only the cost of travel, Chinese tourism to the Caribbean will be limited to a smaller, high-end market.  This conclusion is re-enforced by figures which show that the four most popular destinations for Chinese tourists are cities in nearby South Korea and Japan to which the cost of travel is considerably less than long-haul flights. 

Of course, smaller numbers of Chinese are also travelling to Europe and North America, but surveys indicate that they want –- and expect -– better services, including persons proficient in the Chinese language at hotels, shopping centres and tourist sites; security from crime; and sensitivity to their cultural differences.  To attract a portion of the Chinese tourists who can afford to travel beyond their neighbouring countries, the Caribbean will have to learn from the experience of European and North American countries in catering for them, including showing them respect.

Additionally, the Caribbean will have to compete against other destinations that are closer to China, such as Indonesia, Maldives, Thailand and the Philippines that, like the Caribbean, offer sun, sea and sand, and many more historic heritage sites.  These destinations already have a jump on the Caribbean through programmes designed especially for Chinese visitors.

The US and Canada are also competitors -– although there is potential for complementarity between Caribbean countries and some North American regions -– for double-destination tourism.  This possibility has many challenges but it could be pursued for the benefit of countries that take advantage of it.  Links between airlines serving China and the Caribbean from North America would be especially important.

US airlines and US Airports are working hard to gain more Chinese business.  For instance, American Airlines launched new routes in to Shanghai and Hong Kong from its hub at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in June.  Not to be outdone, Delta Air Lines launched a non-stop flight between Hong Kong and Seattle in the same month, and United Continental Holdings added a route from San Francisco to the central Chinese city of Chengdu.  All the airlines cited “the consistent growth in the number of Chinese leisure travellers venturing abroad” as the basis for their investment.

Interestingly for the Caribbean countries that enjoy ‘designated’ tourism status by the Chinese government, this year, Air China also launched non-stop flights between Beijing and Washington, D.C, while the smaller Hainan Airlines, which had already been flying routes to Seattle, Chicago and Toronto, launched a service between Beijing and Boston.  It is with these airlines that Caribbean Tourism agencies and airlines could usefully engage.

There is certainly a higher end Chinese tourism market that Caribbean countries can pursue, but there is much work to be done at a regional level to identify the challenges and opportunities, and at the national level to make themselves ‘Chinese-ready’.

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Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat; Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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