By Frances Emery
As China's economic growth continues at what some are calling a far more sustainable pace than that of last decade, several individual industries have managed to consistently excel, and outbound tourism is among the most prolific of these.
It was only a few years ago that experts were predicting that, by 2020, China would be the world's largest source of outbound tourists. Today, its chances of
eclipsing both the US and Germany before 2020 - in terms of the country's number of outbound travelers - is anticipated with considerable certainty. Compared to just 10 million Chinese tourists who travelled abroad in 2000, a staggering 83 million traveled last year. Reaching a level of 100 million outbound tourists annually - which researchers predicted for 2020 - is now expected within just two years, by 2015. Already, Chinese tourists have overtaken Germans as the world's biggest spending travelers, the United Nations World Tourism Organization reported in April this year.
Rising disposable incomes, loosened restrictions on foreign travel, a strengthening yuan and competitive prices for luxury products overseas have all helped China to become the world's fastest growing tourist source market. And, although research has shown that cities within Asia receive a large proportion of holidaymakers from China's mainland, nowadays more and more wealthy Chinese travelers are becoming enticed by exotic - and often far flung - destinations, and adding them to their list of "must-sees". Among the foremost of these exclusive vacation spots is the Maldives.
Regarded as an island paradise by both Western and Asian travelers, the sun, sea and golden sand of the Maldives have long made it a favorite destination for honeymooners. But more recently, the Indian Ocean island has been gaining a reputation for offering tourists more than just an idyllic beach holiday experience. The Maldives boasts shopping opportunities of a high enough caliber to attract a demographic of affluent tourists from around the globe and, in combination with its ample range of first class dining venues, the island is fast becoming known among Chinese as an exclusive luxury destination.
In reality, the Maldives may be on its way to becoming more exclusive - elusive, even - than would be imagined under ordinary circumstances. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the world's sea level has risen by eight inches since 1870, placing several of the world's island nations in severe danger. The National Academy of Sciences warns that, depending on how the earth responds to climate change in the coming years, the sea's level could increase by anything from 16 inches to 56 inches by 2100. That would put the Maldives - the world's lowest lying nation, with its 1,192 islands averaging just five feet above sea level - in a particularly precarious position: underwater.
Indeed, the fact that the Maldives may have all but disappeared within a decade or so is one of the - albeit quirky - reasons that more and more Chinese tourists are flocking to this paradise soon-to-be lost. And, although these geographical and climactic changes pose a monumental challenge to the Maldives and those with the power to make decisions about its fate, many of the infrastructure projects that have been conceptualized as a result are nothing short of genius. Aside from conserving the country's physical landmass, their realization will in all likelihood actually contribute to the success the country has already been enjoying as an unforgettable tourist destination for some years now. The launch of the world's first ever underwater nightclub in October 2012 is just one example.
The venue, accessible only by boat, includes floor to ceiling glass windows which look directly onto a lit up ocean expanse, speckled with tropical fish. Niyama Resort's proud creation lies 500 meters from the Dhaalu Atoll shore, and six meters below sea level. The nightclub's lavish interior includes iridescent turquoise furnishings intended to mimic the ocean's blues, and luminous glass tables that echo its brightly colored fish. Rows of bar tables are positioned along the windows at which clientele can sip cocktails as they gaze out at a sea view with a difference. In order to minimize environmental damage, the nightclub was built entirely on land before being lowered into the water.
Breathtaking as it may be, the Niyama Resort's underwater nightclub is far from being the Maldives' only brand new innovation to wow international visitors. Late last year, the Maldivian government announced plans for an ambitious GBP 320 million (RMB 3 billion) floating golf course, accessible via underwater tunnel, with architectural firm Dutch Docklands International working on the design and building of it. The golf course is just one part of a large scale project which will replace the islands under threat of sinking with a network of manmade floating incarnations, aimed at being the world's largest series of artificial islands, which will be anchored to the seabed using cables or telescopic mooring piles in order to withstand storms. Future visitors to the Maldives will be able to rent private submarines to travel beneath the island, and even to surface within the interior of newly-built homes by submarine too.
CEO of Dutch Docklands International, Paul van de Camp said: "We told the president of the Maldives we can transform you from climate refugees to climate innovators." It will be the first and only floating golf course in the world, "and it comes complete with spectacular ocean views on every hole," said an enthusiastic van de Camp. "The islands will be floated into position first and then the grass will be seeded and the trees planted afterwards," he explained.
Aside from the enormous appeal that futuristic tourism of this sort will presumably have for wealthy international visitors, projects such as the golf course will be powered entirely by solar energy, and the entire resort has been designed to be completely carbon neutral. If Chinese tourists are, indeed, becoming as technologically savvy and environmentally conscious as research suggests, and then it seems fairly certain that the Maldives will succeed in garnering a substantial portion of Chinese travelers within the luxury tourism market.
So far, the island nation is on the right track. In 2010, China became the Maldives' single largest source of tourists for the first time, outnumbering Brits, Italians, Germans and French visitors. The 120,000 Chinese arrivals in 2010 constituted 15 percent of all tourists, but 2011 proved even more promising, with that figure jumping to 198,000, making up over 21 percent of visitors to the country.
Leisure tourism has historically been the reason that the majority of visitors come to the Maldives, but since being announced as the host for the Indian Ocean World Travel Awards (WTA) ceremony, taking place at the Paradise Island Resort and Spa in North Male Atoll in May 2013, it appears that the Maldives' future may be more varied than its past. The country's Ministry of Tourism called its selection a "milestone" in the 40 year history of its tourism industry. Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal said the ceremony will pave the way for the country to host more high profile events in the future, thereby attracting an entirely new demographic to the island nation. He added, "Over the past 40 years, we have been known as a honeymooners' spot, a surf spot and a luxury holiday destination. This will add another area for the industry."
Savvy players within the Maldives' hospitality industry have spent the last few years making an effort to cater particularly to their Chinese guests' needs in response to this tremendous growth and, in doing so, are hoping to secure a piece of the proverbial pie in the future too. During a September 2012 visit to Beijing, Maldivian President Mohammed Waheed said that with tourists from China overtaking those from Europe, from then on the Maldives would be focusing on how to redesign its tourist industry in order to accommodate Chinese visitors better. This included ensuring that Chinese food - along with national preferences for shopping and entertainment - was readily available, and generally creating a more welcoming environment for Chinese tourists.
Until recently, the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, renowned for their "distinctive Asian standards of hospitality and service", as they describe it, was the Maldives' only five star hotel where exacting Chinese guests could be certain they would be suitably taken care of - and in their mother tongue. Increases in Chinese visitor numbers has since led other top hotel chains - in the Maldives and beyond - to launch tailor made hospitality programs of their own that cater specifically to this growing market, which has made for a more varied and competitive selection of hotels for wealthy Chinese guests visiting the Maldives.
Hilton Hotels & Resorts was among the first to pioneer a tailored hospitality program aimed at the Chinese market in August 2011, which it called "Huanying Hilton". ("Huanying" means welcome in Mandarin.) The program was designed with an emphasis on providing Chinese guests with the creature comforts of home and, so far, the feedback has been extremely positive. Hilton's vice-president of Global Brand Marketing, Andrew Flack, told press shortly after the launch, "Chinese guests have so far been very happy with it. We went to China (…) to launch the program there and I met the head of the Chinese Hotel Association. He told me he knew about Huanying already and had stayed in a Hilton in Hawaii. He said it was great to see real food!" The program was launched in 50 of Hilton's hotels across 13 countries and naturally, with its recent influx of Chinese visitors, the Maldives was among them.
Chinese travelers, particularly the wealthier among them, often place a significant amount of emphasis on cuisine, so Hilton's effort to cater to their needs is a sensible business move. Rather than the usual predominance of Western style food, breakfasts at Hilton hotels participating in the Huanying program are typically Chinese, and include different types of congee, fried rice or noodles, a selection of dim sum, deep fried dough sticks, hard boiled eggs, fresh fruit, as well as a variety of Chinese teas and soy milk. Attention to detail consistently proves its ability to be a deal maker or breaker when it comes to accommodating Chinese guests. In-room kettles, a variety of teas, slippers and Chinese television channels have now all become mainstays at hotels that realize the value of this proliferating consumer demographic. And, until the majority of Chinese who travel abroad are fluent in English, having Chinese speakers at reception desks is an all-important guarantee. Since 2011, the number of Chinese visitors to the Maldives has grown exponentially, from 198,000 to over 230,000 in 2012, according to the Maldives' Ministry of Tourism. Just five years prior, in 2008, visitor numbers sat at just over a quarter of that number.
Naturally, ensuring that there are an adequate number of flights between China and the Maldives has been essential for maintaining a certain level of growth in the number of visitors. When, earlier this year, the Maldives announced that it would be signing a bilateral air services agreement for the operation of direct air links to improve connectivity between it and another leading holiday destination, the extent to which China's outbound tourism explosion will shape the tourism industry as a whole became that much clearer.
As of July 2013, one of the Maldives' leading airlines, Mega Maldives Air, will operate a non-stop service linking Beijing Capital Airport with the international airport on another far-flung Indian Ocean paradise: Mauritius. Improving connectivity between these two leading vacation destinations has been hailed as a brilliant marketing strategy by players within China's outbound tourism industry, who realize the appeal of this "Two islands, one vacation" selling point. Mega Maldives Air plans to increase the flights to a daily service from 21 August, which will amount to seven flights weekly. This will take the total direct services to Beijing to eight per week, including Air Mauritius' once weekly flights, and the total number of flights from Mauritius to China to 13 per week.
Mauritius has gained popularity among Chinese as a tourist hotspot over the past few years, partly as a result of the country's targeted marketing efforts. The fact that shopping - rather than lying on a beach - was identified as Chinese tourists' favorite leisure activity was not lost on the island nation, and in January 2010, the Bank of Mauritius began accepting debit and credit cards with the Union Pay logo - the Chinese equivalent to the Visa or Master Card network - increasing the ease of purchases and other financial transactions by leaps and bounds. The Bank of Mauritius' ATMs comprise approximately 40 percent of the country's total, and more than half of the island's merchants have since followed suit by installing Union Pay point of sale machines.
Finding ways to ensure that Chinese tourists are able to spend their money with as few impediments as possible is only going to find its way onto more and more countries' agenda in the near future. Chinese outbound luxury tourism is reported to be growing at 25 percent annually, with spending rates climbing substantially year on year. According to an April 2013 report in the Wall Street Journal, more than two-thirds of Chinese purchases of luxury goods take place abroad. Chinese outbound tourists spent US$ 69 billion in 2011, and more than US$ 100 billion in 2012, which amounts to 41 percent more than the year before. The latest figures signaled that China has overtaken both the US and Germany as the world's biggest-spending travelers, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) announced last month.
"The impressive growth of tourism expenditure from China and Russia reflects the entry into the tourism market of a growing middle class from these countries," said UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai. "That they have overtaken us already is astonishing," president of the German Travel Association, Juergen Buechy, told journalists. But, he added, the growth was to be expected, given that the country had more inhabitants than North America, Russia and Europe combined.
Mauritius' hospitality industry has taken its own steps to cater specifically to the Chinese market and, during a December 2011 visit to the country by the Deputy Mayor of Shenzhen, Zhang Siping, the Mauritian Minister of Tourism, Michael Sik Yuen, announced the opening of two hotels, scheduled for completion in 2012. One was a property owned by Angsana Hotels and Resorts - a brand which has built an excellent reputation for itself in other far flung destinations, such as the Maldives - and the other was part of the luxury Centara chain, which has resorts on several Thai islands. Both of the resorts had the needs of wealthy Chinese - Chinese speakers, Chinese language literature, Chinese cuisine and several of the other creature comforts that are increasingly being understood as essential to a holistic luxury holiday - at the heart of their marketing strategies. Since then, several other hotels have followed in their footsteps.
But creating an outstanding experience for wealthy Chinese tourists goes beyond serving Chinese food and providing slippers in hotel bedrooms. It requires in-depth knowledge about Chinese culture, and each of the nuanced elements that encompass it. In this respect, Mauritius may be at a slight advantage: a proportion - albeit small - of its population is Chinese. Although the Sino-Mauritians who comprise approximately three percent of the country's citizens are a combination of Mandarin, Cantonese and dialect speakers, research shows that the country's familiarity with Chinese culture - as well as the fact that certain traditional festivals are celebrated in the country - does contribute to creating the sense of a home away from home. More important, however, is the country's gastronomic repertoire: Chinese cuisine abounds in Mauritius. From exclusive restaurants owned by Sino-Mauritian serving delicacies such as abalone soup, to street side vendors where freshly steamed dumplings are sold, Chinese food is far more prevalent in Mauritius than a three percent population of ethnic Chinese would suggest. Even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that there are three Chinese language newspapers that are published in the country, as well as a monthly news magazine which was launched in 2005.
While Chinese language news and cuisine certainly can't take too much credit, Mauritius has recently experienced a significant rise in the number of Chinese tourists holidaying on the island. Approximately 14,000 Chinese tourists are reported to have visited Mauritius between January and November 2011 - almost a 99 percent increase compared to the same period in 2010. The goal is to attract 50,000 Chinese visitors by 2020 which, given the fact that the number of flights between China and Mauritius were drastically increased early last year, seems perfectly feasible. Now, with imminent flights connecting China with both Mauritius and the Maldives, holidaying in two - rather than one - Indian Ocean paradise can become a dream come true.
Aside from the two islands' appeal as destinations in their own right, both countries have advantages which are particularly important in the Chinese traveler's mind. While Mauritius automatically grants Chinese citizens 60 day visas on arrival, the Maldives does not require that they obtain visas at all. Wealthy Chinese, who are more and more inclined to travel independently rather than in tour groups, value the additional freedom that a lack of stringent visa restrictions affords them, and eliminating the inconvenience that goes with obtaining a travel visa is perhaps the wisest step Mauritius has taken toward securing a segment of this increasingly lucrative market. The ease of travel that both of these countries allow - along with the fact that, with the introduction of connecting flights, they can both be easily visited on a single trip - makes for an exciting holiday opportunity that plenty of Chinese are certain to grab with both hands.