This time last week, I was stepping off a Virgin Australia flight in Cairns. There was a fresh breeze in the air, the sky was blue and the sea even bluer. Winter’s the best time to be up in tropical north Queensland, I reckon.
Cairns today is a very different place to the one I first visited in the 90s. Then it had just woken up to tourism and I remember a very small town with a couple of main streets, and lots of Japanese tourists.
Fast forward to 2011 and the Japanese have been replaced by the Chinese. There weren’t a lot of tourists around – traditional markets like the US and UK have declined, and Australians are spending their strong dollar overseas – but the ones I saw were mostly Chinese.
I ran into a group of youths at the Cairns Marina (pictured below). They were students in Sydney – two studying technology – and had just returned from a dive trip. “So beautiful, we saw many fish,” one said.
Two had graduated and I asked if they would be returning to China. “We try and find a job here first,” one replied. “I like it here. Fresh air, space, good life.”
The other said, “In China, it’s very stressful, we have to compete all the time. Here is more relaxing.”
And there you have it – the reason why most folks from Asia travel to Australia, really. Space, nature, slower pace, a style of life that can’t even be bought in most parts of Asia due to massive urbanization, over-commercialisation and intense competition for jobs, space and money.
It’s not for the food – although Australians like to boast about their modern cuisine and they agonise over whether their Chinese food is good enough – we have better local food back home. It’s not for the hotels – we have better hotels in Asia, seriously. It’s not for the shopping – if we want to buy luxury brands, we can get them in Hong Kong, Singapore or Paris. What we want to buy are probably more Aussie brands – and those are not that easy to find in the main tourist zones – and most wouldn’t know where to begin looking for these brands.
Yes, those are nice to have – which traveller doesn’t want good food, good hotels and good shopping – but they are not essential to an Australian experience, I believe.
At one point during the Australia-China Tourism Summit, when the questions about food kept coming – is our Chinese food good enough, what do the Chinese like to eat – a Chinese speaker told the audience they should stop obsessing about food. The difference is not food as such, the difference is in the culture.
“For Chinese people, food is their target. Food is more than food. For Australians, food is a process,” he said.
“Sell the romance of Australia,” he said. “Women in China have no time for romance, give them that when they come here.”
The issue about food and shopping stems from tours that are controlled by tour operators, tour guides and shops. It’s hard to give anyone a good experience when their budget for food is A$8 a meal and their itinerary revolves around shops from which guides earn their commissions.
How do you break this cycle?
Well, one statistic I thought interesting was that ADS group traffic forms only 36% of the Chinese market to Australia although in the last year, it’s rebounded to 40%. That’s the segment that’s controlled by tour operators.
It’s in the rest of the market where Australia has the opportunity to engage directly with the customer, to prepare them for what’s special about Australia and to offer them a real Australian experience when they are in the country.
Just like those students I met – they were travelling independently. They booked online. They were taking photos with their smartphones and posting them on their social networks. They were tweeting about their trip on Weibo. And they get Australia. Now those are the new customers to go after.
So this time next week, I will be opening WIT Australia in Sydney and that’s exactly the kind of stuff we will be talking about. Join us for the ideas and inspiration. I am told the sky in Sydney may not be as blue as in Cairns, but hey, there's always the view that makes me dream of wide open spaces.