Monday, June 17, 2024

The changing face of Chinese tourism: Value over volume

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By Grant Bradley of

(240417) -- AUCKLAND, April 17, 2024 (Xinhua) -- This photo taken on April 17, 2024 shows a Sichuan Airlines' aircraft at the Auckland International Airport in Auckland, New Zealand. The direct flights between China's Chengdu and Auckland of New Zealand officially resumed on Wednesday after being suspended for more than four years as a Sichuan Airlines' aircraft carrying over 200 Chinese tourists landed at the Auckland International Airport. (Xinhua/Lu Huaiqian) (Photo by Lu Huaiqian / XINHUA / Xinhua via AFP)

Direct flights between China’s Chengdu and Auckland officially resumed on 17 April after being suspended for more than four years.

The return of Sichuan Airlines to New Zealand completes the final piece in the jigsaw for restoring air links to China but a tourism boss isn’t expecting the big volume of Chinese visitors to return.

Pre-Covid, China was New Zealand’s second-largest market (behind Australia) with more than 409,000 Chinese visitors in 2019, and contributing over $1.7 billion to New Zealand’s economy.

But it was the first major market to collapse completely when Covid-19 hit and, because of prolonged border restrictions, the last one to recover.

Tourism NZ chief executive Rene de Monchy said the return of Sichuan Airlines was a vote of confidence in this country as a tourism destination.

The 209-aircraft airline is based in Chengdu, which has a population of more than 16 million, and the Sichuan area has 84 million people in it.

While it’s offering just one flight a week to Chengdu, an airline boss says it would assess demand with a view to increasing frequency.

De Monchy said the services gave New Zealand the opportunity to attract tourists from a much greater catchment.

“It’s a different province, it means that people in that region can also make the decision to come to New Zealand. It’s really good and it’s a vote of confidence.”

With the arrival of Sichuan last Wednesday, all five Chinese airlines that were flying here before the pandemic are now back. The popular travel month of February for Chinese New Year saw 38,000 visitors from China, a 74 percent recovery compared with the same month in 2019.

Now derailed pre-pandemic Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment forecasts estimated that visitor numbers would reach nearly 700,000 some time in 2025.

De Monchy said despite encouraging signs over the Chinese New Year, the China market would grow differently now. The move away from high volume tourism to high value tourism was happening before the pandemic but was now happening more rapidly.

“You’re starting to see an evolving style of travel coming out of China which I think is a good outcome for New Zealand as a destination.”

There was less emphasis on group travel but higher value, smaller parties.

“You’re seeing tailor made travel, which might be extended family, maybe eight to 12 guests. These groups may have their own transport so it looks like group travel, but behaves a bit like free and independent travel, and it’s higher value.

“It’s about more exploring. You’re seeing a real growth in interest out of China for things like campervans and outdoor activities, and what you’re seeing is an interest in skiing.”

The interest in winter activities and ski activities was boosted by the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. “China never stands still, so it’s never going to go back to what it was in 2019 because consumer behaviour has moved on.”

The real challenge and opportunity with China is to make sure that we tap into the emerging consumer trends, said de Monchy.

“New Zealand’s offer will be more appealing to a higher value Chinese visitor interested in outdoor activities and that’s aligning with what we want.”

Auckland Airport said independent travellers from China made up 85 percent of inbound visitors in the fourth quarter of 2023 (up from 71 percent in 2019), while 15 percent opted for group tours (compared to 29 percent in 2019).

China Travel Service provides arrangements for inbound tourists from China and its managing director Lisa Li said forward bookings for this country were strong and operators were enjoying a great April.

Her firm also works with outbound tourists to China and a group of 70 were on the first outbound flight last week to Chengdu, which despite its size has a reputation for being one of the more relaxed Chinese cities, home of pandas and a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. It also has a new airport, Chengdu International.

Chinese Govenment-owned Sichuan Airlines started flying in 1988 and its all-Airbus fleet includes six widebody A350s and 11 A330s.

The airline is offering cut-price fares starting at $930 return for economy flights between Auckland and Tokyo. There is a four-hour layover in Chengdu. It is promoting fare-only return fares to Rome for $1300, with a 20-hour transit.

Before the pandemic, Sichuan Airlines flew three times a week to Auckland and its general manager, Zhao Feng, told the Herald it would assess the market and increase frequency if there was sufficient demand.

“Currently, it’s once a week but we will see how the market reacts to this and we will potentially adjust the frequency.”

Auckland-China flights at a glance

  • Air China to Beijing 4 x week (7 x week in July)
  • Air NZ to Shanghai 7 x week
  • China Eastern to Shanghai 7 x week & (new route) Hangzhou (via Sydney) 4 x week
  • China Southern to Guangzhou 7 x week (14 x week in July)
  • Hainan Airlines to (new route) Haikou 3 x week and Shenzhen 3 x week
  • Sichuan Airlines to Chengdu 1 x week
  • * This article was originally published by the New Zealand Herald.

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