All you need to know about the Chinese Tourism boom and how to ride it
A decade after Beijing granted Approved Destination Status to Nepal, Chinese tourists are coming in unprecedented numbers – creating immense opportunities for tourism entrepreneurs.
The statue of the mythical Chinese general stands tall at a garden in the Yurihama town in the Tottori prefecture of Japan. “Know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles. If you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one. If you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle,” wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War, an all-time favorite among strategists – be it in the army or in business.
The fabled Chinese strategist, believed to have lived between 544-496 BC, led the forces of the Wu dynasty to crush the Chu dynasty and ravage its capital Ying.
More than 2,000 years after the general’s death, the Chu and Wu dynasties are no longer in existence.
The former kingdoms are now part of the People’s Republic of China. The second-largest economy in the world is growing at unprecedented levels, and so is the income of its people. The people, who lived through famines throughout history, now have money to spend. They are one of the biggest spenders in tourism.
The effect of the boom has been felt globally. Nepal, one of China’s 14 immediate neighbors has also seen a boom in arrival of Chinese tourists, however small it may be.
The biggest effect of this boom can be seen at the centre of Kathmandu’s tourist district, Thamel, where Chinese tourists are making their presence felt.
Thamel, or even Kathmandu, is not the place to be during the monsoon season. It rains all day and the roads are all muddy. On a July afternoon in Jyatha, which would normally be quiet because of the off-season, is abuzz with Chinese tourists. “Ni hao. Jin lai kan kan (hi. Come in, have a look)” is what you hear wherever you go. The areas once known for being a hub for Western hippies have now become a congregation for the Chinese. “When I walk on the Jyatha road, I feel I am somewhere in China,” says Xue, a woman in her 20s from the North Eastern Chinese city of Da Lian.
Chinese women clad in red sarees, young boys pointing their DSLR cameras at everything and the older lot gazing at the city map, all this is a common sight in Kathmandu’s most famous tourist destination. The narrow lane of Jyatha is dotted with signboards in Hanzi characters—a restaurant here, a guest house there, and a shopping mall in between. “Most of the businesses are run by Chinese themselves,” says Ashok Bhandari who owns a trekking gear shop in Thamel. “I have seen Thamel change before my eyes.”
Going back just 10 years, things were not this way. “Back in our days, most of the Chinese-speaking tourists either came from Taiwan or Hong Kong,” says Kishan Bahadur Nagarkoti, who worked with Mandarin-speaking tourists as a tour guide from 1988-2000. “They were a different type of tourists. There were no restaurants and hotels in Kathmandu especially made to cater to the Chinese tourists.”
Varun Mehta of Worldways Travels & Tours, a company that has been focusing on Chinese tourists since 1992, agrees. “The Mandarin-speaking people from Taiwan and Singapore preferred to stay only in five star hotels. There were very few tourists from the mainland,” he adds.
It all started when Nepali tourism agencies first participated in the China International Travel Fair in 2000. On April 16, 2001,the governments of the two countries signed an initial memorandum of understanding on a plan to encourage Chinese people to travel to Nepal.
A year later, the China National Tourism Administration granted Approved Destination Status to Nepal and in June the same year, Chinese nationals began visiting Nepal, officially for the first time as tourists. Soon after, the central banks of Nepal and China inked an agreement to make Chinese currency convertible in Nepal. It was also this period (2006), when Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region near Nepal’s border was connected to the Chinese railway network. This period also saw the expansion of services by Chinese airliners such as Air China, China Southern, China Eastern and Dragon Air.
Fast forward 10 years, Nepal and China signed a memorandum of understanding that would allow airliners based in both countries to conduct 56 flights per week to each other’s territory.
All hotels and restaurants in Kathmandu’s tourist hub are queuing up to cash in on the boom. Just last year, Hotel Tai Shan opened for business. When you enter into the hotel compound, it is difficult to distinguish who is Chinese and who is a Nepali. Outside the hotel reception, there is a line of handicraft shops and travel agencies. All of them have one thing in common – they have signboards in Chinese.
“Two Chinese citizens took over what was then Hotel Gajur, to start this hotel in last year,” says Manager Nyima Sherpa as he talks to his Chinese clients in Mandarin. “Around 70-80 per cent of the guests are Chinese,” he says.
Who are the Chinese travelers?
China, with a billion-strong population, is a diverse country, in all respects. Many would think that the people speak one Chinese language, but the reality is that there are dozens of Chinese languages and dialects, Mandarin being one of them. Coming up with the profile of the Chinese traveler is not an easy task.
So what would the one thing that Chinese tourists are most particular about?
The answer is free WiFi.
“Whenever we go to a fancy place, we like to take photos and share them on Chinese social networking sites,” says Minhua Lin, a public policy researcher based in the South Eastern Chinese city of Guangzhou.
“If I switch off the WiFi for just 5 seconds, you will see the inn’s guests coming down to the reception to complain,” says Pranesh Malla, the owner of Bodhi Inn, Thamel.
The Chinese Travel Monitor Report 2014, based on a survey among 3,000 hoteliers and 3,000 travelers around the world also says free WiFi is among the services that most hotels give around the world.
The report says that hoteliers around the world provide services such as free WiFi and facility to pay using China Union Pay or All pay cards to their Chinese costumers, who mostly travel for leisure. They also have in-house Mandarin-speaking staff, and travel and tourism guide books translated in Mandarin.
Similarly, a CLSA report, based on a survey among 1,000 Chinese travelers in 41 cities, says shopping is an important part of the tourists’ travel itinerary. They look for local specialties in skincare, makeup, perfume and apparel, says the report.
Ravi Shrestha, who owns a handicraft shop in Thamel, says gift-giving is something that is common not only in China, but also in many Asian countries. “Whenever we travel abroad, we buy gifts such as T-shirts and shoes for my family members and friends. Similarly, the Chinese want to share a piece of their holiday destination with friends and family,” he says. “They look for unique and artistic things that can be given as gifts.”
Items considered as luxury goods by the Chinese are also in demand. “Spending by rich Chinese and lavish gift-giving resulted in the global luxury-goods sector expanding 41 percent between 2009 and 2012,” authors of the CLSA report say.
It also found that more and more Chinese travelers are using the Internet to look for opportunities to travel independently. Around 40 percent of the respondents in the CLSA survey said they may book their own flights and hotels and make their own arrangements in the future using the Internet.
Who comes to Nepal?
Back at Hotel Tai Shan in Jyatha, Thamel, two Chinese-speaking tourists are checking in at the counter. As the receptionist does not understand Chinese, she is not sure what type of a room they want. She then calls a middle-aged Chinese man sitting at a table at the hotel lounge. “They want the $40 per night room,” the man tells the receptionist. And the couple behind them wants the $400 per night room.
The two couples represent two of the three categories of Chinese travelers coming to Nepal. ”A Chinese tourist coming to Nepal is a high-end traveler, a student or someone who do not fit in either category,” says Mehta.
Travelling has now become one of the favorite activities of the Chinese. “They like to travel whenever they have time. Most of the Chinese that come to Nepal are either youngsters or retired people,” says Rajan Prasad Kharel, another Mandarin-speaking guide, who has been in the business for over 15 years.
Unlike their Western peers, who have a fixed travel season, the Chinese do not have a fixed time of the year to travel. Most students travel during the summer when they have a three-month-long holiday, says Pranesh Malla of Bodhi Inn. Similarly the October-November season is for retired people to travel abroad. “During the pre-Christmas months, manufacturing in China is in its full swing. The working population is not free to travel, but the retired ones seem to have made up for it,” says Varun Mehta. This means that there is no off-season for tourists from our northern neighbor.
There is some decline in arrivals during the Chinese New Year as people like to spend time with their families, explains Nyima Sherpa of Hotel Tai Shan.“But we hardly feel any difference,” he says.
Mehta explains, “As the Christmas season ends, manufacturing also gets back to normal. Then the Chinese New Year celebration begins.” During the New Year, the retired people stay at home to look after children, while the working parents travel abroad, says Mehta.
The Chinese come to Nepal to relax, and do not want to participate in ‘heavy’ activities such as trekking and mountaineering. Of the 71,000 Chinese tourists who came to Nepal in 2012, around 53,000 (75 percent) said they came for holiday/pleasure. Only 28 of the 1,202 people who climbed various mountains in Nepal in 2012 were Chinese.
“They say that they do not want to pay money to sweat,” says tour guide Kishan Bahadur Nagarkoti. Mehta says keeping this in mind, many travel agencies in Nepal offer activities such as light trekking and paragliding, which is very popular in Pokhara, for their Chinese clients.
The shops selling trekking gear in Thamel, are an exception to the ‘rule’ that signboards must be in Chinese. “This is because we are not interested in Chinese tourists as they do not like trekking. Around 95 percent of our customers are Western tourists. So why should we have signboards in Chinese?” says Ashok Bhandari.
According to figures from the Nepal Tourism Board, Chinese tourists spend on an average nine days in Nepal. Popular destinations include Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur Durbar squares, Pokhara, Chitwan, Nagarkot and Lumbini. “We designed the itinerary for Taiwanese tourists three decades ago. We are using the same for people from the mainland,” says Varun Mehta. “The tastes of the Chinese tourists are about the same.”
So, do Chinese only eat Chinese food?
Minhua Lin, who has travelled extensively in Europe, says no. Chinese travelers want to try local food. “It is not necessary to prepare Chinese food. But tourists want the menu to be in Chinese so that they understand what they are ordering.”
Pranesh Malla has a similar experience to share. Before he introduced a menu in Chinese, guests at his inn would seldom eat at this place. “But they started enjoying local food when I offered a menu in Chinese,” he adds.
Mehta, however, has a different take on the issue. He says that local businesses should understand that Chinese tourists are to see Nepal, not to become Nepali. “It is okay for them to try Nepali food sometimes. But they prefer eating at a proper Chinese restaurant most of the time.”
It is not just food that attracts Chinese tourists to an eatery. The decorations and the artistic appeal of a restaurant are important for tourists. “I would personally prefer to see the restaurant staff dressed in their traditional attire,” says Minhua Lin. She also says that people of her country are fascinated with folk tales, and look for stories behind things.
The same applies to the shopping habits of Chinese tourists. They prefer unique and artistic things. “The men buy Khukurisand women love sarees. Rudrakshay, Pashmina shawls and metal statues are favorites among Chinese tourists,” says Ravi Shrestha. Tea is also on their shopping list. “Drinking tea is an important part of Chinese culture. In Nepal, they want to buy tea in boxes that are artistic and unique,” he adds.
Is there any space for new entrepreneurs?
The Chinese tourist boom in Nepal offers a lot of business opportunities for entrepreneurs. There are many unexplored areas, say entrepreneurs who have been in the business for many years. The tourists want to spend money in Nepal, but there are not enough places for them to do so, they say.
“It is obvious that they don’t want anything that has a ‘made in China’ label on it. I would recommend entrepreneurs to build hotels that are not necessarily luxurious, but are cozy,” says Pranesh Malla. “Such hotels should have decorations that are unique and traditional,” he says. You should think of ways to relate Chinese culture to Nepali culture, through stories and tales, Malla adds.
“I see that trekking is slowly gaining popularity among the Chinese youth. Maybe this is due to the Japanese influence. A trekking company that can cash in on this new-found interest among young Chinese can also be a good idea,” he says. “Similarly, businesses that can showcase traditional practices in Nepal such as yoga and meditation can also do well.”
Varun Mehta also has a list of ideas for entrepreneurs. “There are many Chinese restaurants in Kathmandu, but most of them only offer Sichuan variety of Chinese food. It would be a good idea to start a restaurant that specializes in food from other regions as well.”
“Chinese travelers are very interested in karaoke. There are not enough karaoke places in Kathmandu. Similar is the situation with coffee lounges, where people could sit talk with friends,” says Mehta. “Shops that sell cigars, different varieties of fruits and wine can also do well,” he says. “In addition to that, there is a dearth of good Chinese-speaking guides who can deliver the right message to the tourists.”
“They want to stay near the tourist hub so that they have access to all the good restaurants and shopping areas. This is why a resort in the outskirts of the city may not be a good idea if you want Chinese guests.”
“Most important of all: either learn Chinese or hire someone who knows Chinese,” he recommends.
Learning the Chinese language is not just about speaking in Chinese, it’s about understanding their culture and their way of looking at the world, says Pranesh Malla. That is why it becomes important not only to understand our own culture, but also that of our Chinese guests.
What the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said in his ‘Art of War’ is still relevant to Nepali tourism entrepreneurs.
If Sun were alive today, his advice for Nepali entrepreneurs might be, “Know your Chinese tourists and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred businesses. If you do not know your Chinese tourists but do know yourself, you will win in one and lose in one. If you do not know your Chinese tourists nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single business.”