Chinese tourism in the MENA region

In 2017, the Middle East alone received 58 million tourists, with North Africa enjoying a 13% increase in international arrivals. This was a stunning rebound from the terrorism-induced tourism depreciation in the previous year. So, what inspired such a rapid sector recovery? In truth, Chinese tourism.


Why is this happening?

The combination of China’s shift in cultural attitudes and its growing middle-class is steering outbound tourism trends. Increased wages and annual leave have induced a stronger emphasis on leisure holidays. More customers are seeking to explore destinations further afield rather than settle for domestic trips. As a result, Chinese tourists spent an astronomical 126 billion USD abroad in 2017 (according to The Chinese National Tourism Association), making the country the world’s leading market for tourism. The association predicts that this figure will continue to rise in the foreseeable future.

The evolution of customer travel preferences has worked in the favour of the Middle East and North Africa. Chinese tourists are now more interested in luxury, culture-filled and customised holidays with friends and family. Indeed, the Majid Al Futtaim Group has remarked that Chinese customers account for 25% of luxury goods sales in the Emirates Mall.

The once coveted budget packages, whose part and parcel was destination hopping, are no longer in vogue. Chinese travelers wish to spend a longer period of time immersing themselves into a specific location’s culture. The Senior Vice President of JLL Middle East and North Africa, Marko Vucinic, explained that the expanding middle-class are drawn to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) due to its iconic attractions, such as malls, beaches and cultural sites.

Most importantly, however, there has been concerted Chinese effort to forge economic partnerships in the MENA region. In particular, China’s influence has boosted tourism in Gulf states, and more interestingly, Morocco.


Lead by example: a closer look at Morocco

China has become an integral part of the Moroccan Government’s ongoing economic liberalisation strategy. In June 2016, a Chinese delegation of tour operators and journalists visited the country in an attempt to strength tourism sector cooperation between the two states.

In the same month, Morocco removed entry visas for Chinese nationals, and the Moroccan National Tourism Board announced new paid partnerships with a number of international airlines. Additional aviation routes have opened and regular direct flights between Morocco and China have been launched.

King Mohammed VI (left) and President Xi Jinping (right), 2016
Chefchaouen, a popular destination for Chinese tourists in Morocco

The hard work has paid off. In 2017, Morocco recorded a whopping 300% rise in Chinese tourists from the previous year. Furthermore, the country’s touristic success has had a notable impact on its wider financial markets. The Index of Economic Freedom recently attributed Morocco’s growth in foreign investment to its thriving tourism sector.


What opportunities are there?

If harnessed properly, the Arab world’s reputation for luxury as well as its rich historical and cultural heritage could continue to yield immense purchasing power with Chinese tourists.

The WTO 2017 report entitled “Penetrating the Chinese Outbound Tourism Market” suggests that the priority should be targeting millennials, the increasingly dominant market force for Chinese tourism.

To achieve this, the WTO proposed strengthening online marketing on popular social media platforms and fostering partnerships with online Chinese travel providers. WeChat, China’s largest social networking site, has 963 million monthly users alone. The site has also expanded its inbuilt e-commerce services. This makes it exceedingly easy for businesses to persuade the broadening pool of technologically-savvy, travel-oriented customers to purchase foreign holidays.

The WTO report further advised that consumer interest across the market could be enhanced. The creation of Chinese-friendly travel services – designing bespoke, flexible travel programmes – and removing barriers such as Chinese visa restrictions would boost Chinese visitor numbers and expenditure.

In any case, existing consumer trends can be capitalised upon. According to Ivy Alliance Tourism Consulting, the peak season for Chinese tourists travelling to Middle-Eastern and North African countries is during the Chinese Spring Festival (January – February).  More emphasis could be placed on encouraging tourism during other key festival periods throughout the Chinese calendar.

It is without question that substantial economic rewards will result from tapping into a greater portion of the world’s leading outbound tourism market. Tourism plays a central role in the Arab regional economy. The World Travel & Tourism Council claims that, in spite of a 2016 decline, tourism constitutes 4.4% and 3.3% of North Africa and the Middle East’s total GDP, respectively, and also directly supports around 4,545,000 jobs. Further Chinese visitors would only improve business and employment prospects in MENA countries.

Time is of the essence. Middle Eastern and North African countries, with inert tourism industries, need to start seizing the opportunities China’s budding outbound tourism market has to offer.

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