It is estimated that one in ten tourists worldwide is now from China. In 2013 alone, 97.3 million outbound journeys originated from the country – up by 17% compared with 2012 figures. During the same year, Chinese travellers also spent $129 billion on international travel, according to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO); US tourists’ expenditure was $86 billion.

Such statistics don’t deceive. The Chinese outbound tourism market means big business and will continue to grow at a rapid rate. Most analysts predict that trips abroad from the region will have topped 100 million by the end of this calendar year – by 2020, that number could be closer to 200 million.

The Asia-Pacific region still accounts for the lion’s share of trips taken by Chinese tourists – roughly 90%, according to UNWTO – but, in recent years, Europe has emerged as an increasingly popular destination for China’s new wanderlust generation, with more than three million trips made a year. The Americas make up just over two million.

Slightly further down the list sits the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), with travellers from China accounting for 1% of tourist traffic in the region. Yet, while undeniably a modest share, it also needs to be put in context that between 2000 and 2012, Chinese arrivals in the region saw a fivefold increase, growing at an average of 19% a year.


The Chinese custom
So, are we to believe that the Middle East hospitality sector has been sluggish in its bid to attract Chinese visitors, or does the yearly double-digit growth, as reported by UNWTO, suggest that it is in fact taking progressive steps towards improving its share of this lucrative market?

At first glance, it’s a difficult question to answer. Dubai is the region’s indubitable hotspot, attracting almost 45% of all Chinese travel; second is Egypt with 14%, and Saudi Arabia follows up with 7%.

Defined by its high-end shopping outlets and some of the world’s most luxurious hotels, Dubai is naturally attractive to the swathes of emerging middle-upper-class Chinese travellers with a predilection for buying and consuming luxury goods.

"The biggest success in penetrating the Chinese market, without any doubt, has been Dubai," says Xu Jing, UNWTO regional director for Asia-Pacific. "They are going there, firstly, because they want to validate their status of being rich. These tourists want to be part of that environment, as well as contrasting it with what they might have back home.

"That really ties in with the second part, which is this love of shopping. It’s almost inbuilt in their minds, and can be traced back to Chinese psychological and cultural habits.

"Whenever we go away, it is customary to return with lots of gifts that might even equate to someone’s monthly salary. In fact, I would say it has more to do with psychological factors, rather than economic."

At present, most Chinese travellers who land in Dubai, home to the region’s largest airline hub, appear to have little motivation to venture further into the rest of the UAE, despite the country having been awarded approved destination status (ADS) by the Chinese Government in 2009.

According to Jing’s UNWTO colleague Amr Abdel Ghaffar, who serves as director for the Middle East, if other parts of the region are to ramp up their portion of outbound travellers, there will need to be greater efforts made in improving air access, with more direct flights to and from Chinese cities.

"Connectivity is a major challenge," he says. "Dubai has two of the world’s fastest-growing airlines – Emirates and Etihad – and services the Chinese outbound market very well, but there are very few direct flights into other countries, and they aren’t particularly user-friendly, which is a big complaint."


Route to growth
One solution, argues Ghaffar, would be for private and public stakeholders in countries with clear tourism potential to "join their assets" with the two airlines, with a view to promoting joint tours for Chinese tourists. Does he have anywhere specific in mind?

"Jordan is one," he says. "Aside from the shopping aspect, many travellers from China are interested in Arab history and culture. Jordan has plenty of unique heritage sites. Qatar has also gone to great lengths in recent years in promoting itself – particularly for business travel – and has subsequently seen a rise in the number of Chinese visitors."

Jing, on the other hand, believes that national tourism boards across much of the region have been found wanting in their marketing and promotional strategies. Campaigns, he claims, lack imagination, and are missing a trick in not playing on the commercial ties, stemming from the Silk Route, that have existed between China and the Arab world for centuries.

"If you asked the average Chinese person on the street about the culture of Jordan, they wouldn’t have a clue," he says. "The same even goes for Abu Dhabi, despite it having ADS. That’s because there’s virtually no promotional marketing out there that will entice Chinese travellers to these destinations.

"It surprises me, given the strong parallels that have bound the Middle East and China together since the days of the Silk Route. There is great potential to take these links and even tie them in with the conventional idea of shopping tourism. That would almost certainly improve the region’s share of Chinese outbound penetration."

This would suggest that MENA destinations and suppliers need to work more closely with Chinese tour operators across the country’s various regions to create tailor-made tour programmes that resonate better with target travellers. This is, after all, a large part of the reason why Europe has been so successful in recent times in attracting more Chinese travellers.

"Yes, developing these partnerships is key," agrees Ghaffar. "Part of the reason why Dubai has been far more successful than any other part of the region is because it has gone to great lengths – through conducting workshops and symposiums with Chinese representatives – to generate more suitable products. We need to see more of this elsewhere."

"It’s not about following a simple ABC method," adds Jing. "That stage has long gone. For example, everybody now knows that the Chinese – as a rule of thumb – prefer to drink hot water to cold water. It has to go beyond this rudimentary behaviour, and really delve into their likes and dislikes. MENA countries need to invite the Chinese tour operators over to gain a true understanding of these habits."

Political instability in parts of the region, as well as ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya, have contributed detrimentally to the MENA tourism market. Egypt has seen Chinese arrivals plummet by 60% since 2010, exacerbated even further by last year’s bloody coup, which saw the military oust President Mohamed Morsi.

In spite of this, Jing and Ghaffar echo the sentiment of their employer: the Middle East’s prospects in improving its share of the Chinese outbound travel market – in the medium term, at least – are decent.

"There is, truly, I feel, a strong sense of optimism and conviction in the region’s bid to attract more Chinese travellers to visit," says Ghaffar. "That’s not altogether surprising. The potential is just too much to ignore."

You wouldn’t argue with such a statement, but to capitalise on China’s growing wont for international travel, MENA cannot rely exclusively on approved destination status from Beijing – awarded to eight out of the region’s 19 nations – to attract tourists.

Instead, tourism boards across the region will need to go to greater lengths to modify their marketing and promotional strategies. Only with better awareness will the Chinese outbound travel market truly be attuned to the riches the Middle East has to offer.