By Shame Makoshori
ZIMBABWE’s high-profile campaign to market the country’s attractions to China appears to have failed to yield results, as the number of tourists from that country remains low compared to other source markets, according to the Zimbabwe Visitor Exit Survey (VES) report for 2015 and 2016.
The VES polled 38 680 foreign tourists.
This brings into question the effectiveness of the campaign, which has been undertaken by the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) since 2005, when the country adopted a “Look East” policy after diplomatic ties with western source markets soured.
Analysts said this week that given that Chinese tourists were among big spenders, Zimbabwe should immediately deploy more efforts and restrategise to win the Chinese market, whose average expenditure per trip is over six fold the average spending levels of most international tourists.
The VES said during the review period, tourists were spending as little as US$50 per trip, although in some cases there was an average of US$500. In contrast, a survey by Hotels.com published in the Chinese International Travel Monitor revealed that the average daily amount spent by Chinese international travellers was 3 324 yuan, which translated to about US$543, on accommodation, shopping and sightseeing.
The report said the top end of the Chinese market spends as much as 13 000 yuan per day, which is about US$2 124 daily.
This is certainly a market segment any serious tourism marketing board should target; but there appears to be a lack of initiative locally, with authorities directing their efforts towards less important issues like nude cultural dances.
Worldwide, even the most advanced countries are slowly warming up to Chinese tourists as their expenditure levels rise in tandem with the exponential growth of their robustly expanding economy, the world’s second largest.
From the Americas to Europe, countries have seen their hotels, airports, malls and retailers hiring Mandarin speaking concierge services to accommodate the rising force of Chinese travellers, who are expected to reach 100 million per annum in the next few years.
Visa regimes have been revamped and joint marketing agreements have been struck with Chinese agencies to tap into the Chinese money and easing entry into their countries.
But the VES, done by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) and released by the Ministry of Tourism and Hospitality Industry last month, revealed that there were more tourists arriving into Zimbabwe from other destinations.
From the Asian region alone, Japan, which is rarely mentioned in the marketing campaigns, accounted for 21 percent of arrivals, according to the VES.
China trailed with 12 percent, while India was also at 12 percent.
Analysts said considering the resources that have been deployed to tap into the Chinese tourism market, including significant amounts in travel and subsistence allowances for ZTA staff and others from the Ministry of Tourism and Hospitality Industry, something was completely wrong with the marketing strategy.
For instance, eight percent of arrivals from that region came from Israel, while Singapore had 6,2 percent, Hong Kong 3,7 percent and Turkey three percent.
“The survey revealed that about 70 percent of visitors were in the broad age group 25 to 49,” said the VES.
“A majority of visitors were from Africa (80,7 percent) followed by those from Europe (9,8 percent) and the Americas (5,7 percent). In the African region, South Africa was the leading source market for visitors to Zimbabwe with 38,1 percent followed by Zambia (18,5 percent) and Malawi (18,1 percent). For the European region, United Kingdom is the leading source market at 38,3 percent,” the report said.
It shows that China, which had emerged as one of the biggest sources of tourism revenue in the mid 2000s, has slipped out of the top five source markets for Zimbabwe.
This speaks volumes about why the country’s tourism industry is said to be growing, yet hotels, lodges, airlines, tour operators and other players are on the brink of collapse.
Most African tourists do not utilise tourism facilities.
Over the past decade, Zimbabwe has splurged enormous resources trying to lure Chinese tourists into the country under the “Look East” policy.
That policy, apparently, was meant to spite the West, which had imposed targeted sanctions on the country and had, due to an unprecedented economic crisis as well as political instability, issued travel warnings advising its citizens against travelling to Zimbabwe.
Now, despite the new direction by government, it has emerged that even the said marketing efforts have not been aggressive enough, as reflected in less-than-satisfactory tourist numbers from China.
This could be an indictment on the ZTA as Zimbabwe’s tourism and hospitality industry has repeatedly advised on the need to aggressively market the country to the Chinese, not, for instance, engaging cultural dancers from Brazil to come to Zimbabwe to showcase their samba.
The Chinese government had responded to President Robert Mugabe’s diplomatic efforts by granting Zimbabwe the prestigious Approved Destination Status, which is given to countries specially certified by the Chinese government for its citizens to visit.
But all these efforts have come to naught because of an inefficient system superintending over the tourism industry, whose officials continue crying for resources even as the cash-strapped government splurges significant amounts annually on international travel fairs that the ZTA and the Ministry of Tourism participates in.
So, what else can Zimbabwe blame for the insignificant arrivals from China?
“The visibility of Chinese tourists has slowed,” said Charles Chakanya, a tour operator.
He said there were several factors affecting Chinese arrivals.
“It is difficult to understand why the Chinese are not coming but one of the reasons could be the visa regime,” Chakanya told the Financial Gazette’s Companies & Markets.
“It may also be an element of the other destinations that Chinese tourists are visiting. In the past six months for instance, more Chinese tourists have been going to South Africa because of the weakening of the rand. There was hype over the Chinese before and we recorded more contribution from Chinese tourists. But in the past three years it has just dropped. But as operators we have done everything that is why tourists from other markets are coming,” Chakanya said.
Last year, government initiated moves to relax the visa regime as part of efforts to boost the tourism sector.
The visa regime was relaxed for 37 countries including China, while authorities removed visa requirements for all visitors from the Southern African Development Community.
Zimbabwe uses a migration management system with a three tier visa model classified into categories A, B and C.
Category A refers to countries whose nationals are exempt from visa requirements while those in category B obtain visas at the port of entry on arrival.
Category C nationals are required to apply for visas from their home countries prior to travel.
This was expected to reverse the slide in arrivals, including from the China/Hong Kong market.
The destination had reported a 22 percent drop in arrivals to 12 920 in 2014, from 15 520 the previous year.
Last year’s arrivals were also disappointing.
But it is only now that Zimbabwe has been talking about liberalising the visa regime for the Chinese market, something that should have been done when the country first made the decision to lure them.
Annual outbound tourists from China are expected to rise to 200 million by 2020.
As such, attracting Chinese tourists may be a boost to revenue for a country already affected by low spending patterns.
The VES indicates that tourists were spending as little as US$50 per trip during the survey period.
Many of them did not stay in hotels.
“The majority of visitors (83,7 percent) spent US$500 or less with 41,8 percent spending US$50 or less. The highest expenditure was on food and beverages accounting for 28 percent followed by accommodation with 18 percent. Visitors from Oceania region were the highest spenders (US$1 354) followed by those from Europe with an average expenditure of US$909. The least spenders were from Africa with an average expenditure of US$310,” the report said.
“Forty two percent of visitors did not utilise any commercial accommodation facility,” said the VES.
“Thirty three percent of visitors either stayed with friends or relatives while commercial accommodation, such as hotels, lodges, chalets and camps accounted for 22 percent. Most of the visitors (31,1 percent) were visiting friends and relatives. Transit visitors accounted for the second largest proportion of 29,5 percent while holiday/leisure was the third at 18,2 percent,” the report said.
The statistics mean that there was little marketing effort taking place in the key regions.
The African market usually arrives voluntarily even without marketing efforts.
As reflected by the VES, they don’t come for leisure; they come to see friends and relatives.
It then becomes vital for the ZTA to promote Zimbabwean destinations to the better spending markets like the Chinese, who spend in hotels, fly into the country on airlines and spend more on activities like game drives.
Would it not be noble to redirect efforts to performing regions like the Oceania, Singapore and others?
The Chinese International Travel Monitor survey asked mainlanders not just what countries they want to visit, but what they want to see in those countries.
“This year’s report is another wake-up call to host countries around the world to pull out all the stops to accommodate Chinese travelers and tailor their services for this market,” said Abhiram Chowdhry, vice president and managing director in the Asia Pacific for Hotels.com
“They are younger, more independent, highly tech-savvy, and happy to spend — and they know exactly what they want,” he said.
The report also brought to the fore the impact of roadblocks on the country, which could also affect Chinese tourist arrivals; tourists alleged harassment by police at roadblocks and persecution by customs officers at points of entry.
It revealed that although the majority of the foreign tourists polled between 2015 and 2016 were generally happy to return or recommend the country, some had no kind words for Zimbabwe on account of the ill-treatment they got.