The new face of Australian tourism is from Beijing not Birmingham and prefers designer handbags to well-worn rucksacks.
As the numbers of sunburnt British backpackers arriving on shoestring budgets begins to wane, cashed-up Chinese tourists with long shopping lists are emerging as the most important players for inbound tourism.
In the three months to March, 188,600 visitors came here from Britain, a fall of 11.7 per cent compared with the same period last year. Visitors from China rose by 23.2 per cent, by far the largest increase, with 179,500 arriving during the same three months.
The influx was partly driven by Chinese New Year. Last year the value of the Chinese market exceeded $3 billion for the first time, according to Tourism Australia. On average, Chinese visitors spend $6803. Visitors aged 15 to 29 stay an average of 112 nights and spend twice as long and twice as much as British tourists of the same age.
The traditional attractions – beaches, wildlife and open spaces – are a drawcard for Chinese travellers but so is shopping, which explains the popularity of Melbourne and Sydney.
Chinese tourists are drawn to upmarket shops such as J. Farren-Price in Sydney, which sells diamonds, Rolex watches and Kailis pearls.
”In the last two years there has been a significant increase in Chinese tourists, who have an appetite for fine, globally recognised brands,” the director, Julian Farren-Price, said. ”We are very good value for them because they have high taxes on their luxury goods.”
Vivienne Zhang, 27, agrees it is cheaper for Chinese people to buy high-end products in Australia. ”Shopping is a very important activity on their travel agenda,” said Ms Zhang, who came to Australia from Fujian in China on a student visa seven years ago and now has permanent residency. ”A $200 designer bag bought here could cost twice as much in China,” she said.
The Mulberry handbag shop in central Sydney is another favourite destination.
”We get many Chinese tourists, usually buying a bag for themselves before they return home,” said a sales assistant, Georgia Milone. ”Most popular at the moment is our Alexa Chung, which is $1810.”
Less than 10 per cent of the Chinese population can be considered wealthy but with a population of more than 1.3 billion, that still left 130 million people with enough cash to travel and shop, said Sam Huang, a senior lecturer in tourism management at the University of South Australia.
”They want to return home from overseas trips with luxury goods as a symbol of their wealth,” he said.
Mr Huang estimates that by 2020 the number of Chinese visitors could exceed those from Britain and New Zealand.
The executive president of Tourism Australia, Andrew McEvoy, said the boom in Chinese tourism had been carefully cultivated.
”Everyone says this increase in tourism is just happening now, but we have been investing since the mid-to-late ’90s, and in 1999 Australia was the first Western country to be granted approved destination status by the Chinese government. We’ve been building on our relationship with China since then.”
Last July the government said it would spend $30 million over three years to attract Chinese visitors.
Next week the Tourism Minister, Martin Ferguson, will launch the 2020 China Strategic Plan at the China-Australia Tourism Summit in Cairns.