Comment: Where is the love? Chinese tourists in the Maldives

In one of Minivan News’ recent articles, a tourism sector official from the Maldives was quoted as saying:

“[E]ven though total arrivals increased, the tourism industry suffered as a whole in 2014.

Total tourist arrivals have increased compared to the previous year. However, as arrivals from Europe and Russia decrease, less income is generated as the replacing Chinese visitors spend less and stay for lesser periods,”

As the Maldivian airline that brought over 30 percent of the Chinese to the Maldives – more than any other foreign or domestic airline – we know a thing or two about Chinese visitors to the Maldives. And we would like to point out that this idea of the Chinese as the poor, pot-noodle-eating, ‘second-class’ tourist is not only offensive, but also untrue.

The data

Don’t take our word for it. Data from the World Tourism Organisation show that at US$102.2 billion, Chinese passengers were by 2012 already the biggest spenders abroad. By 2014 this had reached over US$155 billion, and is expected to hit US$194 billion in 2015.

Individual country results also show similar patterns. According to the US Travel Association, Chinese tourists spend on average US$7,200, compared to US$4,500 from other nationals. Chinese tourists are so important, that some countries, like the UK, are changing their entire visa systems to attract them.

In fact, data from our own tourism ministry also implies that the Chinese are big spenders here in the Maldives too. According to the Maldives Tourism Visitor Survey 2013, 40 percent of Chinese spent over US$5,000 (not including their hotel and air package), while only 27 percent of the Germans, 24 percent of the British, and 23 percent of Russians spent more than this in the Maldives.

So, whichever way you look at it, the data does not agree with the common (mis)perception of Chinese passengers as being poor.

The Chinese ‘fad’

We in the Maldives have consistently been wrong about the China market. Let’s not forget that in 2010, there were senior officials in the tourism sector who regarded Chinese tourists to the Maldives to be a ‘passing fad’.

Thankfully for the Maldives, it wasn’t. Since 2010, the ‘fad’ tripled from about 100,000 to 300,000 today. Chinese tourists are the reason why we count ourselves a million visitor destination today.

Retail therapy

“Yes they are here”, you say. “But they do not spend”.

Despite the statistics above, we believe there is some partial truth to this. The Chinese do not spend like the Europeans on holiday do. This is partly because ‘spending’ for Chinese on holiday meant primarily one thing: shopping.

Unlike Malaysia, Thailand, or Dubai, we in the Maldives do not do ‘shopping’ as a tourism product. So when they first arrived, the Chinese did not have much to ‘buy’: no Burberry scarves, no Godiva chocolates and no Rolex watches. It was not that they lacked money. They were simply not the type to spend US$500 on a bottle of wine (at least not one they could not take back as a gift).

This gave the local tourism industry a perception of the Chinese passenger as ‘poor’. However, those of us who sold duty-free products to them, either at the airport or on their return journeys, knew perfectly well that they were not. On one flight from Male to Beijing, the entire contents of a Mega Maldives Airlines duty-free shopping trolley were sold out. Every single item!

The coming opportunity

That said, it is unlikely that we can, or even want to turn the Maldives into a shopping-focused haven of malls and discount-retail outlets. Luckily for us, we don’t have to. The spending habits of Chinese tourists are changing.

According to research by China UnionPay – one of China’s biggest bank-card association – the importance Chinese customers assign to shopping is falling. According to data analyst at China UnionPay Chen Han:

“The data show that outbound Chinese consumers are focusing more on what they gain from their travel experiences instead of what they buy at their destinations. This shift shows a heightened awareness of ‘quality time’ during their holidays.”

This means that the Chinese tourist is becoming a little more similar to the Western tourist. They will start appreciating cuisine, drinks, spas, diving and all the other ‘experiences’ that make the Maldives unique today. However, this also presents us with an opportunity to develop a much more active and innovative tourism sector product. Maldivian culture does not have to just mean the weekly local cuisine buffet, or the staff ‘bodu-beru’ band of the resort.

We could for example, have festivals of music, art, dances, poetry and literature, all of which will be highly appealing to the Chinese market. We could have talks on conservation, sustainability, nature and the environment – concepts becoming very popular in China. Natural remedies and approaches to health and well-being, as well as meditation and ‘mindfulness’ are also increasingly popular with this market, especially as Chinese cities like Beijing become increasingly polluted.

All of these opportunities generate a lot more in terms of jobs and creative opportunities for our youth, and is much better for us than selling a $20,000 Gucci handbag.

How will we get this diversified product to the tourists? The answer to this question may be difficult, but the Maldives tourism product has shown itself to be highly dynamic. The recent emergence of guest houses is one such example of this dynamism. The current government’s ‘Thumburi project,’ is also another very good opportunity to diversify these products and really develop a product that appeals to the Chinese market.

Where is the love?

Look around you. Every country in the world – from Canada to South Africa – is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in promoting their destination in the hope of attracting Chinese tourists.

But we in the Maldives, with our pristine natural beauty, were able to make the Chinese fall in love with us with little or no effort. It’s about time we put our prejudices aside and learnt to love them back.

Mizna Ahmed is a Director at Mega Maldives.

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