Recovering Irish tour operators eye €74bn Chinese tourist market
Luxury shopping, castles and golf to to the fore as Tourism Ireland sends largest ever trade mission to China
There are more Chinese tourists than ever, including those seen at the St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin last year. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Do you know your dim sum from your congee? If you are in the hotel or tourism business, perhaps you should consider adding these Chinese dishes to your menu. According to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, China has been the world’s fastest-growing tourism market for the past decade and last year the Chinese became the world’s biggest spenders on travel abroad. Their 83 million visitors spent a record $102 billion (€74 billion), passing out the former big spenders Germany and the US who both spent close to $84 billion.
Not surprisingly, the world’s biggest hotel chains have set their sights on China and are trying to outdo each other with offers. Groups such as Starwood Hotels, Marriott International and Ritz-Carlton are training staff to avoid making cultural faux pas when tour buses of Chinese visitors roll into town.
Low level of awareness
So how does a small green island more than 8,000km from China compete with this? Tourism Ireland’s chief executive Niall Gibbons says there is a low level of awareness of Ireland in China but the market has great potential. He is preparing to lead Tourism Ireland’s biggest ever trade mission to China next month, with 20 businesses such as the Guinness Storehouse, Abbey Tours and Kildare Village all vying for business from some of China’s 1.35 billion inhabitants.
Mr Gibbons says the number of Chinese visitors has increased greatly in recent years, albeit from a very small base. Some 10,000 visitors came in 2011 compared with 17,000 last year. This year’s figure is heading for 19,000.
“We expect that between now and 2017, that will grow to 50,000,” he says. “But remember that of the 83 million Chinese who travelled last year, just three million came to Europe so we are fishing in that pool of three million.”
A key factor in the increase in numbers was the introduction of the Irish visa waiver programme more than two years ago, which removed some of the bureaucracy for Chinese visitors wishing to come here from Britain. Next year the process should be even easier, under plans being worked on by the UK Home Office and the Department of Justice.
So what does the typical Chinese tourist like? “The things they are looking for at a very broad level include scenery, culture – castles are extremely popular – and golf,” Mr Gibbons says. “But the one that stands out above all is retail shopping. Particularly luxury brands.”
Luxury retailers such as Brown Thomas have begun to capitalise on this. The K Club in Straffan, Co Kildare, is also looking at this market with great interest, particularly because of the Chinese fascination with golf. Its director of sales and marketing Adrian Mooney says the resort would like to see more Chinese visitors. It hosted the Chinese prime minister’s son and his entourage last year when they came on a golfing trip.
“From what very little Chinese business we have seen, it certainly would suit a five-star property like our own. That’s why it forms a part of our strategy long term,” he says.