Australian businesses set their sights on Chinese tourists

Australia's natural treasures, such as the Twelve Apostles, are a hit with Chinese travellers.

With 1.3 million Chinese tourists already heading Down Under annually, here’s how Australian operators plan to remain China’s flavour of the month.

By Katrina Lobley

It all started with a scoop of lavender ice cream. In the summer of 2008, when social media was in its infancy, visitors’ snaps of Bridestowe Lavender Estate's exotically purple treat went viral among the Chinese community. 

With the flavourful images triggering an engagement with Asia, the Tasmanian farm’s new owner, Robert Ravens, saw an opportunity to maximise Bridestowe’s appeal to this lucrative market. 

“We worked very creatively with a lot of Chinese travel agencies and Chinese media to reposition our product,” he says. Where once Bridestowe “was a genteel place where [toiletries company] Yardley gathered its premium fragrance”, Ravens wanted to reposition it into something more contemporary. 

The momentum continued, thanks in no small part to Bobbie the Bear – a purple, lavender-stuffed teddy that made use of the farm’s excess crop. Sales skyrocketed after a Hong Kong chef was photographed with Bobbie among the flowering lavender fields. 

In 2014, Bobbie lit up social media when he was spotted with Chinese model Zhang Xinyu, and popular actresses Sun Li and Fan Bingbing. During Chinese president Xi Jinping’s 2014 visit to Tasmania, Ravens worked with tourism and state authorities to put Bobbie into the president’s hands – a brilliant marketing move captured by news cameras.  

The Bridestowe Lavender Estate's lavender ice-cream.

Ravens estimates that Bridestowe has now sold half a million bears and that visitor numbers to the farm, a 45-minute drive from Launceston, will exceed 85,000 in 2018.  

The Australia China Business Council forecasts that total Chinese visitor numbers to Australia will reach 3.3 million a year by 2026, triple the million Chinese tourists who came Down Under in 2016. With China forming Australia’s fastest growing inbound tourism market, insights from operators such as Ravens are invaluable to others hoping to share in this Chinese gold rush. 

“People are buying authenticity,” says Ravens, who has a Chinese-language version of his website but steers clear of Chinese signs at his farm. 

“They want to have … special moments. Giving them those special moments pays off for us. We give them reasons, opportunities, pictures, backdrops – everything you can think of where they can position themselves in our landscape or our visitors’ centre. They do that quite spontaneously – it’s amazing to watch it all happen.” 

Bridestowe focuses its marketing efforts on social media, especially Chinese social media. “It’s just so incredibly powerful,” says Ravens. 

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Andrea Plawutsky, the Sydney-based director of Amplify Me, helps tourism operators and destinations tailor products and services for Chinese travellers. She says it’s time to ditch some preconceptions about Chinese visitors. 

“Until recently, particularly at the operator and destination level, we’ve seen the Chinese as a reincarnation of the Japanese market of the 1980s, with tour buses and set itineraries,” she says. 

“We haven’t been keeping up with the fact that many of the young Chinese, in particular, are going very quickly to a mature style of travel. We don’t break these tourists down into segments – we tend to look at them and say, ‘You’re Chinese’. But there are those tourists who are adventurous, those who are traditional, those who are here for the shopping experience and so on.”

“People are buying authenticity. They want to have … special moments.” Robert Ravens, Bridestowe Lavender Estate

Data from Tourism Research Australia shows a 112 per cent growth in Chinese caravan or camping visitor nights in the year to September 2017. Savvy operator BIG4 Holiday Parks has invested in a Chinese-registered website, plus a translation of its Australian site that includes sample itineraries for Chinese travellers interested in getting off Australia’s beaten track. 

Apollo Tourism, Australia’s largest renter of motorhomes and campervans, has responded to the surge in Chinese customers by translating its website, brochures and road safety guidelines.

Apollo campervans have experienced a surge in Chinese customers.

Once these visitors hit the road, next on the agenda is food and wine, and coastal and aquatic nature and wildlife experiences, says Plawutsky. All these themes are explored in recent Tourism Australia campaigns. 

“However, what the operators haven’t done is gone back and said ‘How can I market to fit in with those characteristics?’” Plawutsky says. 

For example, one way for restaurants to better appeal to Chinese customers is to improve the information they provide, such as having a photograph of a dish or listing the ingredients. 

“Visitors don’t want all the signage in Chinese – they want to experience an authentic Australia,” Plawutsky explains. 

“However what they do want, in a subtle way, is their need for information to be met. With that idea of [maintaining] face in Asian cultures, if we don’t make the food accessible, they’re stuck with a plate of they-don’t-know-what that they have to finish whether they find it palatable or not.” 

Family-style shared meals or tapas dishes may also work better than a pub-style meal for one. However, uniquely Australian food experiences, such as abalone tasting in Tasmania, are also proving very popular.

By taking a few simple steps to improve cultural connectedness, Australian businesses and destinations can ensure they continue to be the flavour of the month for Chinese travellers.

Tasmanian abalone.

Read next: How China's shifting tastes could reshape the Australian economy

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