It is midday on the pristine Watamu beach on the Kenyan Coast, and the blazing sun has kept everyone under beach umbrellas.
Being peak season, the beaches are packed. The visitors are mostly from western countries. There is also a lone Chinese couple and two children sited at the restaurant.
Interestingly, it is rare to spot a Chinese tourist on Kenya’s sandy beaches despite increased efforts to woo Asian tourists. When they visit, it is hardly ever for leisure.
“The Chinese are not regular visitors here. But when they visit, they often come in groups, unlike the western tourists. On average we host at least a group of 14 every month,” said Watamu’s Garoda Beach Resort resident manager Daniel Mwita.
Almost 10,000 kilometres away in Paris, a city that is now under constant guard following recent terrorist attacks, the Chinese have, over the past three months arrived in their thousands, mostly for luxury purchases and sampling the idyllic city landscape.
In total, Paris attracted 16 million visitors in the first half of 2017, making it one of the most popular cities in the world. This is a stark contrast to East Africa’s tourists spots — a region that is also angling for a slice of the Chinese tourism pie.
“We wish more could be done to attract the Chinese, who aren’t wary of travel advisories and the perceived insecurities in the region. They are our best bet, but we have to show them the unique attractions we have,” said Mr Mwita.
On average, more than 140 million Chinese travel overseas, spending more than $270 billion outside of their country.
Sadly, not even a tenth of these funds find their way to Africa, yet over the past five years it has been touted as the new frontier market for Chinese goods and services.
The general manager of Ocean Beach Resort in Dar es salaam Osman Zaifu said while the Chinese are good spenders they come in few numbers and at intermittent frequencies.
“Most of the ones we host here regularly are expatriates who either have work or business obligations within the region, and take off some few days to unwind with their families,” said Mr Zaifu.
With Kenya and Tanzania depending on tourism as key sources of foreign exchange earnings, the thought of attracting a fraction of the Chinese visitors — a market that analysts predicts will hit $429 billion in 2021 — is expected to have a big impact on their economies.
However, the efforts have not paid off, despite heightened marketing and advertising campaigns.
In October, Kenya announced plans to target Chinese tourists to boost earnings from the sector.
The country is, however, among the top five preferred destinations for the Chinese. Tanzania on the other hand is also seeking to boost its share of the Chinese pie — a market it rates as its 11th of 15 main sources, with a 2.7 per cent arrival rate.
Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) chairman Jimi Kariuki said that despite their low numbers, Chinese tourists to the country had posted double digits growth over the past three years, showing that their efforts were bearing fruit.
“We are happy with the growth but are not satisfied with the numbers. We still could get more Chinese tourists in the country. In the next year, we will intensify our marketing activities in China in order to boost the numbers.
We need to cushion the tourism sector from fluctuations in tourist arrivals from our traditional source markets in the west,” said Mr Kariuki, adding that KTB is using WeChat, the most popular social media mobile phone app in China to woo tourists.
In 2016, Kenya received 874,385 international visitors with a paltry 69,000 being Chinese. This was however a 35 per cent growth from 2015.
In Tanzania, Chinese tourist arrivals increased by about 63 per cent to 34,000 in 2016. This was a marginal figure given that international arrivals rose to 1.28 million, from 1.13 million tourists in 2015.
The country’s top market in terms of arrivals are the US, UK, India and China. However, new data shows Kenya is now the top market for visitors arriving in Tanzania.
“We hope to record a similar percentage growth in 2017 and even in 2018. We target to get more than 150,000 Chinese tourists by 2020,” said Mr Kariuki. “We have seen a great boost as a result of the direct flights between Kenya and China.”
In Dar es Salaam, it is not difficult to spot the Chinese, most of whom are businessmen who have upped the trade between the two countries to a record $4.6 billion.
Sadly, when it comes to their impact on the country’s tourism, it’s a measly $74.4 million, something the tourist board says needs to change.
The managing director of Tanzania Tourist Board Devota Mdachi said that outside of promoting intra-African tourism, they are angling to push for more Asian visitors through cultural tourism.
“We’re looking to attract more people from China, India and also promote intra-African tourism, where Kenya has been our biggest tourist market. We also want to promote cultural tourism by integrating the more than 120 dialects in the country, especially those around the key tourism sites,” said Ms Mdachi.
Tanzania is looking at increasing the number of Chinese tourists to 300,000 by 2025, and is banking on its pristine beaches in Dar es Salaam, Pemba and Zanzibar; and also its national parks in the North western part of the country to achieve this.
Ten years ago, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Africa accounted for only three per cent of total outbound tourists, but last year, the figure rose to 10 per cent, with more than 11.5 million Chinese travelling to the continent.
“We continue to see that the Chinese tourist has a perception when it comes to Kenya and other African countries in terms of level of attractiveness. Their tastes and preferences are pegged on destinations and glamour hence the reasons they prefer cities in Europe and the US.
However over the past three years, we have seen renewed interests in our wildlife sites especially the wildebeest migration spectacle at the Maasai Mara Game Reserve,” said Mr Kariuki.
Another factor could also be the kind of attractions the region has compared with Southern and Northern Africa. Mauritius, Morocco, South Africa, Tunisia and Egypt received the bulk of these visitors, with the latter’s main attraction being the Great Pyramids.
The amounts spent by the Chinese tourists in Africa is also extremely low compared with what they splash in Europe and the US, largely blamed on the lack of glitz and glamour on the continent.
A recent report by the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) showed that on average, Chinese tourists spent more than $1,250 per trip, which was almost 35 per cent higher than the European tourists.
“Chinese tourists are the most powerful single source of change in the tourism industry. Their global outbound market is every country’s’ dream to host, mostly because of the billions of dollars they bring in,” said the secretary general of UNWTO, Taleb Rifai.
Last week, Tanzania announced that Chinese tourists were its biggest spenders by far, averaging $541 per person per night, compared with the industry average of $181. Chinese spending power boosted Zanzibar earnings by 30.4 per cent to $375.2 million in 2016, from $287.4 million in 2015.
According to the 2016 International Visitors’ Exit Survey by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), on average the Chinese tourists spent around nine days in Tanzania, injecting $74.4 million into the country’s economy.
Tanzania has now launched an e-marketing campaign with a focus on China, US, UK, Germany and Italy as it seeks to raise its earnings.
The region is also looking at the sophistication of the average Chinese tourist in the light of new technology driven services such as taxi-hailing app Uber and online hospitality Airbnb, to propel economic growth in the region.
The former could be a boon where e-commerce is quickly catching up but airbnb’s rise among the millennials is likely to dent hotel earnings.
“For the young Chinese visitors, the use of e-commerce and retail is without a doubt the in thing as they are tech savvy. Unfortunately, we cannot get the number of Chinese users who patronise such services especially the Airbnb which is quite popular among this age bracket.
“It represents a much better cultural experience than international hotel chains, and this could be a threat to the region’s traditional bed and breakfast way of doing things,” said the executive secretary of the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators, Siril Akko.
In Dar es Salaam, tourism players however feel that this may not be the case currently, given that these tourists are brought in through a wholesome package booked by their agents.
However, this is dimmed by the fact that the country only has 38,000 hotel beds against a demand of 70,000 beds, leaving it exposed to the likes of Airbnb for competition.
“We have agents who plan their trips. This includes payments of airfares, park visits, accommodation and the cultural exchanges. We have looked at our numbers and are yet to feel the impact of these new technologically driven apps.
“However, if the demographics of the average tourists changes, then we will definitely see and impact, especially for the Chinese back packers,” said the chairman of Tanzania Tourist Board Thomas Mihayo.
Last year, the average age of the Chinese tourists who visited Tanzania ranged between 18 and 44. They were mostly in the country for hunting trips, leisure, meetings, academic activities, and conferences.
This article was supported by a grant from the China-Africa Reporting Project, managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.