Slouching tiger... smitten dragon?
A Chinese reality TV show shot in Ireland was beamed to an audience of 500m this week. But are we ready to capitalise on this Eastern promise
Its dinner-time in Beijing and a local family sit down to dine in front of the television. On their plates, Irish beef, on the box…Gaelic football.
It sounds unlikely but this week a Chinese TV crew was in North Dublin to film its country's most-loved celebrities trying their hand at GAA sports. At the same time, 9,340km away, Irish beef exporters were championing their high-quality products at a major food fair in Shanghai.
In recent years everyone from President Higgins to Tourism Ireland, the IDA and Enterprise Ireland bosses have been talking up the importance of trade and cultural links between our little island and the world's most populated giant with 1.35 billion people.
As exposure goes, Ireland Inc has rarely enjoyed such a prized-place in the Chinese spotlight as it has over the last few days. As bemused members of the Na Fianna GAA club in Glasnevin looked on TV crews filmed the hugely popular Exploration of the World reality TV/sports show in their midst.
With an estimated audience of 500 million, the programme brought eight celebrity contestants to Dublin to learn GAA hurling and football skills as well as some Irish dancing steps. As they say in the business, it was 'PR Gold' for Irish tourism.
"Programmes such as this do so much to raise awareness of what our country has to offer Chinese tourists," said Niall Gibbons, chief executive of Tourism Ireland.
It came just weeks after Chinese State TV filmed a travel programme here called Enchanting Ireland - it will reach an audience of at least 84 million. And China's top blogger Fan Yibo visited Ireland recently and wrote extensively about the trip - with 100 million hits on his blogsite, he's a one-man tourism driver in his own right. "Tourism Ireland helped facilitate these initiatives because we know this is a clever way to market Ireland in China and reach massive audiences," said Niall Gibbons.
"Next month our annual sales mission will visit four Chinese cities and we're continually doing all we can, with the help of the Irish embassy in China, to make people aware of what Ireland has to offer as a tourist destination."
Last year Ireland was named the "best potential destination" at the major Ctrip awards ceremony in Shanghai. It fought off strong competition from Turkey, Sweden and South Africa as the destination offering the most potential for Chinese travellers.
In 2014, around 40,000 Chinese tourists visited Ireland and by 2017, Tourism Ireland hope this will climb to 50,000 each year.
"While we have no direct flights from Ireland to China, the number of indirect flights provided by airlines such as Emirates, Etihad and Virgin have grown in number. Visitors coming from China now can get to Dublin by changing just once in Dubai," said Niall Gibbons.
And he expressed his hope that, within five years, a direct flight from Ireland to China could be in operation: "I think perhaps in the medium term this is very possible. If it did come about, it could have a massive effect on tourist numbers from that part of the world."
At least 100 million Chinese tourists leave their country each year but only five million actually visit Europe, with most of those heading for Germany, France or Italy. The UK attracts 295,000 Chinese visitors annually and tourism officials here are doing all they can to get more of them to make the leap across the Irish Sea. "Last year the British-Irish Visa scheme came into operation. This will allow Chinese visitors to enter the UK and Ireland on a single visit visa as opposed to applying separately to each country," said Mr Gibbons.
Chinese tourists are much-coveted. They have more to spend and like to splash the cash when abroad seeking high-end accommodation and luxury goods, which cost about a third of the price here compared with back home.
Retail hotspots such as Brown Thomas and Kildare Village can now accept China Union (debit) Pay Cards at their tills making transactions easier for our wealthy friends from the East.
While visitor numbers from China gradually increase, our levels of exports to the country are moving at an altogether faster pace. With the ban lifted on the importation of Irish beef to China last February, meat producers have wasted no time in seeking contracts.
This week, Bord Bia and a host of major Irish food exporters made the long journey east. They're there to attend the SIAL China Food Fair where the world's leading food companies come baring gifts.
In March, Chinese buyers flocked to Bord Bia's Marketplace International event in Dublin and it's thought the €520m spent by the Chinese on Irish food and drink imports last year will be small change by the end of 2015.
"Ireland has built a solid trading relationship with China which has seen the value of Irish food and drink exports increase tenfold over the past 10 years," explains Bord Bia's CEO Aidan Cotter. "It's our sixth largest export market overall, our second most important for dairy and pig meat and is a growing market for our seafood."
Like Bertie and Brian before him, Enda Kenny has persisted with Ireland's practice of wooing the Chinese leadership and President Xi Jinping visited in 2012. China's human rights violations clearly not seen as an impediment to trade. While export figures, not just in the food and drink sector but also in pharmaceuticals, software and information and communications technology, are up, the benefit to indigenous Irish companies is modest.
"It's a difficult market to crack. The Chinese like to build relationships but language and cultural barriers cause a problem for Irish exporters as does distance," explained Simon McKeever from the Irish Exporters Association.
He'd like to see more resources put into marketing Irish firms in China but said considering our size, Ireland is outperforming other similar size economies in attracting Chinese interest.
"We don't carry imperial baggage, have high value products and are the only English speaking economy in the eurozone, that all helps," said Mr McKeever adding "China has 20pc of the world's population and a rapidly growing economy and middle class - it's absolutely imperative that we keep our eye on growing our exports there - because we really don't want to be left behind."