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

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.

Tiger Woods
"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.

Chinese visitors have been enthralled by pictures of golfing stars such as Tiger Woods in the club house, he says. "There's a big status thing so for a Chinese group to come and play the K Club and go back and tell their friends they played the course that Tiger Woods plays every year, that's huge for them."

The K Club’s proximity to Goffs, the horse sales venue, has also led some Chinese traffic to its doors as the Chinese interest in thoroughbred horses grows. “The difficulty from our perspective is the language barrier. Not too many Chinese, even at the very highest levels, speak fluent English and that presents a problem for all of us,” says Mr Mooney.

He says food has not been an issue. “The higher the calibre of guest, the less likely they are to be insistent on getting what they can get at home,” he says. “If you were dealing with a coach tour in the three- or four-star market, they might have to cater more for the culinary whims, but at the five-star level, these ladies and gents are extremely well travelled.”

Big spenders
He has also noticed that some visitors would not think twice about spending €300 or €400 on expensive brands in the clothes shop. "So they do have a propensity to spend," he says.

Kildare Village, the outlet shopping village outside Kildare town has proved popular with Chinese visitors because of its luxury brands such as Anya Hindmarch, Lulu Guinness and Mulberry.

Its director Maria McGovern says year-to-date tax refund sales from non-EU markets are up 59 per cent to the end of August, when compared with the same period last year. When it comes to the tax refund sales, China is Kildare Village's leading non-EU market. Kildare Village is a member of the Chic Outlet Shopping Villages, which has nine outlet villages in Europe and she says this strong Chinese custom is consistent with the other locations.

Value Retail, which operates the villages, is planning two in China in the next two years. Ms McGovern says the website is now available in Chinese.

Everyone involved in encouraging Chinese custom says a direct flight between Ireland and China would make a huge difference. Tourism Ireland is working on it, according to Mr Gibbons, but in the meantime, there are more than 30 indirect routes, coming through places such as London and Amsterdam. "We see good capacity to grow," Mr Gibbons says. "We have to approach it in a measured way. But remember that there is a very low level of awareness or almost no awareness of Ireland in China.

"Riverdance has gone down very well. There is some familiarity with the green island but other than that we are starting from a blank canvas."