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Marketing on WeChat and flight discounts: Africa targets Chinese tourism boom

African countries are investing to attract visitors from the largest outbound market in the world after the collapse in foreign arrivals during the coronavirus pandemic

Africa tourism
Tourists on a safari in Shamwari, South Africa, in February 2022.David Silverman (Getty Images)

African countries are investing heavily to attract tourists from the world’s largest outbound market, China, as they struggle to recover from losses suffered during the coronavirus pandemic. “Covid wiped out much of the tourism sector, especially in poorer parts of the world, such as Africa,” says Mike Fabricius, a tourism management, consulting and marketing specialist at The Journey, a Johannesburg-based company. “Some African countries rely heavily on foreign exchange brought in by tourists and the money they spend in domestic markets. Losing that for a few years was a very, very hard blow.”

South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, and Tanzania are among the countries now offering more direct flights to China. Kenya is also partnering with social media platforms in the Asian giant. “We are already getting more Chinese to visit our big attractions, such as the Masai Mara Game Reserve, by marketing on WeChat and TikTok. Between January and April [2023], 8,000 Chinese tourists entered Nairobi. In the same period in 2022, fewer than 6,000 came,″ says John Chirchir, acting director general of the Kenya Tourism Board.

Tanzania’s national airline offers discounts of up to 50% on flights to and from China. “We need to do more to engage the Chinese tourist. Our tourism board estimates that between now and the end of the year, only 45,000 will visit us. When you consider that we had 1.5 million foreign tourists in 2022, it shows that we are not even close to tapping the potential of the Chinese market,” says Tanzania’s Minister of Tourism Mohamed Mchengerwa.

In 2019, before the pandemic, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimated that tourism on the African continent recorded an annual growth rate of 5% and accounted for an average of 8.5% of GDP. According to the WTTC, direct investment in the sector was around $29 billion and created 24.3 million direct jobs, representing 6.4% of Africa’s total working population. However, Covid-19 travel bans cost Africa at least one-third to a half of these figures.

In South Africa, one of the continent’s most popular destinations, foreign tourist travel fell by almost 85% in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019, according to government statistics. That year, South Africa’s tourism sector accounted for nearly 6.5% (almost €21 billion) of the country’s GDP. By 2020, that figure had fallen to just over 3% (€9.21 billion), a loss of almost 56%.

You have to tell them: ‘In Africa you’re not just going to be bussed to the Eiffel Tower and Buckingham Palace for photos. Here you will experience a real once-in-a-lifetime adventure’
Peter Masila, Professor of tourism at Moi University in Kenya

“We have seen similar setbacks in all major African tourism markets,” says Peter Masila, Professor of tourism at Moi University in Kenya. Nomasonto Ndlovu, chief operating officer of South African Tourism, explains that half a million jobs were lost in the local tourism sector because of the pandemic. “We are confident of a good recovery by the end of 2024, especially as we are targeting tourists from a huge market like China,” he notes.

In 2019, 155 million Chinese tourists visited foreign destinations, but Ndlovu acknowledges relatively few chose to travel to Africa. “Only 95,000 visited South Africa in 2019. So, we can’t totally blame covid for the low number of Chinese visitors. As far as South Africa is concerned, we are now spending a lot of money on new plans and strategies to attract more Chinese tourists, and I know other African countries are doing the same.”

Fabricius and Masila are of the opinion that African authorities put too much emphasis on numbers. “It shouldn’t matter so much how many Chinese tourists you attract, but rather the specific type of tourist and the money they spend on specialized activities,” Masila says.

Fabricius, who has worked on tourism projects in China and other countries for the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as formulating strategies for global tourism authorities, says: “I don’t think Africa is a place for Chinese mass tourism. The Chinese market has evolved a lot. Before, everyone was lumped together, and it was said that they only traveled in large groups, to take a lot of photos at the most popular places. But with a new generation of travelers, Chinese tourism has become much more diversified and segmented.”

The expert notes that the Chinese mass market remains focused on “flagship” international tourist destinations, such as New York, Paris, and London. “Africa is not going to attract that traveler. What needs to be done is to attract those with interests focused on culture, wildlife, and exploration,” he notes. Masila concurs. “You have to tell them: ‘In Africa you’re not just going to be bussed to the Eiffel Tower and Buckingham Palace for photos. Here you will experience a real once-in-a-lifetime adventure; you will meet people with very rich cultures and see wildlife that you will never see anywhere else.”

Although we have an electronic procurement system that accepts applications from Chinese nationals, the process is still cumbersome and not fully streamlined. We need to make travel to Africa simple and seamless by eliminating red tape”
Rosemary Anderson, president of FEDHASA

Rosemary Anderson, president of the FEDHASA organization, which represents hospitality industries across Southern Africa, believes that the continent’s authorities should promote “once-in-a-lifetime experiences.” “We have valuable cultural assets and provide diverse attractions. South Africa, for example, offers every imaginable experience: safaris, breathtaking scenery, vibrant culture, and adventure activities. We must emphasize experiences that set us apart.”

Africa should do more to collaborate with Chinese tour operators, Anderson adds. “Much of the international travel booked from China is through travel agencies and tour operators. There needs to be a focus on establishing partnerships with them, with joint marketing initiatives or customized itineraries.”

Inefficient authorities and complicated visa procedures hamper African efforts to attract Chinese tourists, experts agree. “You have to make it easier to visit. That takes a lot of work in most countries on the continent. It’s no use having all this very professional marketing, if then the government lets you down by making it difficult for the Chinese to get visas,” Fabricius notes. “We make it incredibly difficult for large outbound markets like China to visit South Africa because of inefficient visa processing,” adds Anderson. “Although we have an electronic procurement system that accepts applications from Chinese nationals, the process is still cumbersome and not fully streamlined. We need to make travel to Africa simple and seamless by eliminating red tape.”

In the case of South Africa, Anderson points out, Australia was a major long-haul tourism competitor, and a comparison gauges the performance of tourism numbers. In 2019, she says, Australia welcomed 1.2 million Chinese tourists, compared with 95,000 in South Africa. “South Africa has much more choice and more attractions. However, it is much easier to get a visa to visit Australia compared to South Africa’s tourist-unfriendly regime, which takes months to grant a tourist visa, if at all.”

The Chinese don’t like to take risks and are well aware of the high levels of crime in some African countries. South Africa, in particular, is infamous around the world for its high level of crime. That is a big deterrent”
Mike Fabricius, tourism management, consulting and marketing specialist at The Journey

Fabricius points out that the Chinese tourist market is also very risk-averse. “The Chinese don’t like to take risks and are well aware of the high levels of crime in some African countries. South Africa, in particular, is infamous around the world for its high level of crime. That is a big deterrent. More needs to be done to make African countries safer, and to change the perception that Africa as a whole is dangerous.”

In terms of marketing, Anderson suggests that promotional initiatives should start from both the public and private sectors, while ensuring that messages are targeted to appeal to diverse budgets, ages, interests and motivations. “In addition, there should be an emphasis on engaging Chinese media through press or familiarization trips to showcase unique offerings,” she says. “We also need to do more to ensure that destination and product information is available on search engines and marketing on Chinese social media channels, such as Weibo and WeChat.”

Fabricius says the effort to attract Chinese visitors must really start on the African continent, not in Beijing. “China is Africa’s largest trading partner and many thousands of Chinese business travelers visit the continent every day,” he says. “That creates another opportunity. People who come on business trips then tell others about their experiences, and that’s a second wave in the leisure travel market.”

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