Tourism Holdings chief executive Grant Webster hasn’t historically been super-motivated by the Chinese market. While Chinese visitors might go to Waitomo Caves, they mostly haven’t been in the market for the company’s main business, camper vans. 

That could be changing. Camping – or at least glamping – took off big time in China during the pandemic, and as Chinese visitors return to New Zealand, pundits are anticipating many will be looking to the great outdoors.

“China is looking to open up 10,000 more campgrounds,” Webster told the China Business Summit in Auckland on Monday. “We’ll be taking the opportunity for sure. We have motor homes lined up and ready to go.” 

New Zealand was one of only 20 countries granted ‘approved destination status’ when China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism suddenly and unexpectedly relaxed travel restrictions earlier this year. 

The first stage saw tour groups allowed to travel, but soon after the market opened fully – as long as you could get a New Zealand visa.

Chinese visitors are returning, and close to half are holiday makers. Source: Auckland Airport, Stats NZ

It gave New Zealand a head start in the market, and things since then have moving quickly – at “China speed”, as the expression goes. 

Chinese visitors are returning to New Zealand faster than those from other countries, says Auckland Airport chief executive Carrie Hurihanganui. It’s taken only four months for arrivals to go back to 84 percent of pre-Covid numbers. She expects that figure to be 93 percent by September. 

But once free independent traveller numbers grow, tourism operators should be gearing up to market different experiences. The numbers of ‘free independent travellers’ are likely to lift, Hurihanganui says, and many of them will be looking outside the cities and the traditional tourism destinations. 

“There’s a growing trend away from the major attractions, towards nature-based destinations like hiking. It was starting before Covid and we expect it to continue.” 

Carrie Hurihanganui says Chinese visitors are increasingly looking for active, outdoor experiences. Photo: China Business Summit

International research published in December 2022 suggested Chinese tourists in 2023 would be looking to do nature trips, and visit beautiful beaches and islands, says Anne Casey, chief executive of Marketing Minds, a local company working in the Chinese market. 

New Zealand is well positioned to meet these needs, provided Chinese tourists are informed, she said.

Whether camping is a step too far remains to be seen, but it has boomed in China since 2020, driven by nationwide fitness policies and the impact of the pandemic, according to research published in June by the Asia Briefing group.

“China currently has a participation rate of around 10 percent in outdoor activities, which is significantly lower than the rates of over 50 percent observed in countries like the US, but the revival of the outdoor industry in China has led to the growing popularity of camping,” the paper says. 

“The core market size of the camping economy in 2022 reached US$15.92 billion ($25 billion), with a notable year-on-year growth rate of 51.8 percent. Projections indicate that by 2025 the core market size of the camping industry will rise to US$34.83bn ($55bn)”

While Tourism New Zealand does a good job marketing the entire country in China, Casey says, individual tourism businesses should be developing ways to promote themselves to different sorts of tourists.

“It’s advisable to learn how to influence decisions by using online platforms that are popular in China. This will include digital platforms like WeChat, Red or Weibo, which are unique to the Chinese.”

‘Red’ is social media and e-commerce site Xiaohongshu (literally ‘Little Red Book’). Particularly popular with women consumers, many of them Gen Z, Red has up to 200 million active users in China and among the Chinese diaspora elsewhere.

Lisa Li and Grant Webster at the China Business Summit in Auckland. Photo: Supplied

Lisa Li, managing director of NZ-based China Travel Service says getting up to speed with the different social media platforms used in China was one of the things she and her team worked on during the pandemic. 

“Red is increasingly popular and users are very picky; the quality of the content has become increasingly important.” she says.  

Casey says Covid has changed things in other ways too. “Now most Chinese put their health ahead of personal freedom. They will want visibly higher standards in hygiene, for example.”

“Marketing to Chinese tourists requires calibrating a message that resonates with this audience rather than dusting off a previous campaign and repurposing it for a new crowd,” she says.

Trans-national education

It’s not just in the tourism market where change is afoot around Chinese visitors post-pandemic. University of Auckland vice chancellor Professor Dawn Freshwater told the summit Chinese students were still keen to come to New Zealand to study, but they didn’t necessarily want to commit to a full-blown Kiwi experience.

“Some students are not keen at the moment to leave the country for long periods, so we are thinking about trans-national courses.” 

Freshwater says the university is looking at adapting the ‘asynchronous’ teaching model it adopted during the pandemic, where students forced to return to their own countries could access their weekly classes at a time which suited them. 

“It was highly successful in maintaining our student base during Covid,” she says. And even though China’s recent opening up of its borders means students can once again enrol in New Zealand, and the University of Auckland is back to its 2019 numbers, asynchronous learning is one option it is looking at to recruit more students,.

“Someone might start their [University of Auckland] course in China, but do some semesters with us.

“It’s an opportunity to re-tool ourselves – to rethink our model.”

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

Leave a comment