The Chinese tourist is coming, but not to SA

Posted on 12 February 2014

By the year 2020, the Chinese tourist will be the most coveted item on any country’s mantlepiece. That’s another trophy South Africa probably won’t have.


It’s quiet in Kruger, save for the slow rumble of our safari vehicle. As the headlights cut into the morning mist and the first trickle of sunlight touches the tops of the mopani trees, a distinctly foreign voice behind me asks, ‘What time do they let the animals out?’ I shove my standard-issue SANParks blanket into my mouth to muffle a guffaw that could’ve cleared northern Kruger of all life, indefinitely.

Tourists really do ask the stupidest questions. The most recent of these, however, got me TOLing (thinking out loud – yes, I just made that up). It comes from the China Tourism Academy and goes something like this: Dear SA, please could you change all your signage to Mandarin? We’re getting horribly lost down there and, frankly, we think you should do something about it. Love, the People’s Republic. I’ve taken some liberties with the translation, but essentially, the academy argues that a lack of Chinese signs in Africa is deterring Chinese travel to the continent. Ridiculous, no? Well, no.

See, ever since we hosted the Fifa World Cup, our dear Department of Tourism seems to have been sitting around with its collective fingers in its burgeoning bottoms. Sure, we’re still showing some growth in inbound tourism, but it’s a sliver of what it was in 2010. Maybe I’m being overly harsh, but milling around at the global average of around four percent growth annually just seems, well, average.

You think I’m being unfairly disparaging? How can a country possibly emulate – or top – its tourism figures in the wake of a major sporting event? Well, as the cock said to the hens, pointing at an ostrich egg, ‘I’d like to show you what’s being done elsewhere.’ Last year, London bucked an international trend by showing an increase in inbound tourism after hosting a major international sporting event. In its post-Olympic year, that figure grew by almost eight percent, recording the city’s best tourism numbers – ever. Now that’s extraordinary. And it was achieved, in part, by adopting a healthy respect for linguistically diverse travellers, which include Chinese-speaking tour guides and signs written in Chinese.

See, there’s currently a pandemic of Chinese tourists gagging for a place to holiday. It’s a global phenomenon and China is now the world’s largest outbound tourism market, with more than 83 million overseas trips made in 2012. That number is estimated to rise to 200 million in 2020. That’s more than 1 000 Boeings jam-packed with binoculars and moon bags leaving China every day. Yes, EVERY DAY.

The Chinese tourist, dear friends, is a coveted enigma. And whether we like it or not, it’s a golden opportunity to show an emerging market all corners of our delightful country. But if our latest tourism figures are anything to go by, our government has done close to diddly squat to harness this rapture.

But let’s get back to those signs, because I have a cunning plan. See, one of two things happens when a first-timer lands at Olly Tambo: they either flock north to Kruger, or south to Durban and Europe, I mean Cape Town. By and large, the little towns on the outskirts of our throbbing metropolis, pockets of pride like Benoni and Zandspruit, are completely bypassed.

Now if we took that appeal for signage seriously, we could solve this problem, lure in Chinese tourists and, as a bonus, keep our hotspots from becoming global parking lots. Instead of employing accurate translation, all we need to do is use it as a rebranding opportunity. For example, simply by swishing the words ‘Cape Town’ in Mandarin underneath a sign for Benoni, we’ll have moved our flagship holiday destination to within 10 kilometres of Joburg’s airport. Sure, my old hometown has more loan sharks than great whites and the only thing you’ll find in drag on a Saturday night is a Datsun with dropped suspension. But it does have artisanal coffee (of the moer variety) and a mall shaped like a boat. It’s basically Cape Town. It just needs a paint job. And there’s a beautiful mine dump that kind of looks like Table Mountain at the right time of day if you squint a little … after a few Klippies.

And Kruger? Well let’s jot that down underneath the turnoff to the Lion Park in Zandspruit. My only worry is whether there’ll be enough lions to keep the hordes entertained. Maybe at the same time as rebranding we could pen a not-so-stupid letter to the US. ‘Dear America, sorry but we now need all our lions. Would you mind terribly going back to shooting each other on hunting trips? Just ask Dick Cheney to show you how.’

Column taken from Excess Baggage, Getaway magazine February 2014.

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