Surge in Chinese tourists is passport to real growth
This weekend will see the largest-ever tourism industry delegation head to China to compete in what is the world's largest outbound travel market.
Companies such as the Guinness Storehouse, Titanic Belfast, the Giant's Causeway, Newbridge Silverware Visitor Centre and the Griffin Hotel Group will be working together, selling the best of what the island of Ireland has to offer.
This will be our ninth annual sales mission to China and last year Chinese visitor numbers to Ireland reached record levels of more than 70,000. The sales mission will take in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong and there will be engagement with over 350 Chinese travel agents and tour operators, as well as with travel journalists, airlines and diaspora.
The Chinese are the biggest travellers in the world. In fact, China has become a booming travel market since 1998, the year the CNTA (China National Tourism Administration) began recording the number of outbound trips - that year, around 8.43 million outbound trips were taken.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, around 130 million Chinese people travelled overseas in 2017, spending $258bn (€216bn). Most trips are taken close to home, with about six million Chinese travelling to Europe every year.
Fewer than 10pc of Chinese people have a passport; however, the number of passports is expected to rise by 100 million over the next decade. Travel is the most desired leisure pursuit for around 56pc of middle and upper class Chinese.
Ireland has a great opportunity to grow its share of this lucrative market and in order to do so, there are four essential ingredients.
Firstly, Dublin Airport - in conjunction with Tourism Ireland - has worked hard in making the case for direct flights from China. In June, the first non-stop direct scheduled flight, operated by Cathay Pacific will leave Hong Kong for Dublin and will operate four times a week. A week later, another carrier, Hainan Airlines, will operate a direct service to Dublin from Beijing. This offers a great opportunity, with more than 85,000 seats to Ireland available over the coming year. Direct, competitive, convenient air access is essential for tourism to grow and we have plans in place to market the routes jointly with both carriers.
Secondly, tourists from mainland China need a visa to enter Ireland. This is a competitive landscape. The Schengen Zone is a collection of 25 countries offering access with just one visa - at a cost of CNY640 (approximately €80). The British and Irish Governments introduced the British Irish Visa Scheme in 2014, which allows visitors from China to enter the UK or Ireland on one visa, at a cost of CNY680 (approximately €85).
Ease of access is essential if we are to grow this market and we will need to ensure that our visa cost and processing time is faster than our competitors.
Thirdly, our colleagues in Failte Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland have introduced a 'China Ready' programme for the tourism industry on the island of Ireland.
The programme is aimed at educating Irish tourism businesses about the opportunities available from the Chinese tourist market. 'Chinese Tourist Welcome' certificates have already been awarded to companies such as CityNorth Hotel, the Cobh Heritage Centre, Glen Keen Farm in Co Mayo, Hastings Hotels and Newbridge Silverware.
Over 150 enterprises are expected to graduate in 2018, making our welcome stronger and more tailored to the needs of the market. This includes basics like language, food and cultural expectations.
Fourthly, we need to increase our marketing presence on the ground. Tourism Ireland established a representative office in Shanghai back in February 2005, after Ireland was granted ADS (Approved Destination Status) status from the China National Tourism Authority.
Since then, conditions for travel between the two countries have improved significantly and Tourism Ireland has expanded its presence, with operations now in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Chengdu, the tier one cities with the greatest prospect for outbound travel.
Our annual sales mission is just one aspect of the promotional effort. We're about to launch a new website, which will be hosted in China and is designed specifically for use on mobile devices, making it more accessible for prospective visitors in this mobile-dominant market.
We are also increasingly using social media. There's a phrase in China for people with their heads stuck in their phones - 'Di Tou Zu', which means 'the bowed head masses' - so, if we're not on social media, then we're not connecting with them. We're active on the microblogging platform Weibo and on WeChat instant messaging platform.
We partner with influential tour operators to ensure that Ireland features in their programmes; and we also work extensively with Chinese travel and lifestyle journalists and bloggers, to ensure they write or broadcast extensively about Ireland as a holiday destination.
Although awareness of Ireland among Chinese travellers is still relatively low, the huge popularity of Riverdance in China, as well as the visit to Ireland in 2015 by the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, have helped raise awareness.
And, the good news is that Ireland has won several travel accolades over the past few years. This spring, Ireland was named the 'Best Overseas Self-drive Touring Destination', at an awards ceremony organised by travel giant Ctrip - the leading online travel agent in China, with more than 250 million customers, and the second-largest travel agency in the world.
At the ceremony in Shanghai, Ireland was one of four destinations listed in the category - in good company with Australia, Portugal and Guam, to take the number one spot. Ireland was included for its stunning routes and great driving experiences, including the Wild Atlantic Way and the Causeway Coastal Route.
As we continue on our path of market diversification and exploit opportunities in new tourism markets, China is a land of opportunity and provides the promise of real growth.
Tourism Ireland's ambition is to grow Chinese visitor numbers to 175,000 per year, by 2025 (plus-150pc on 2017). We work very much as 'Team Ireland' - with our partner agencies, IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bia, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Northern Ireland Bureau, providing great support on the ground.
How fitting it is that on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement - under which Tourism Ireland was established to market the island as a holiday destination - top tourism industry representatives from across the island are travelling to China to work 'shoulder to shoulder' for the greater benefit of the island's economies and for tourism growth in the years ahead.
Niall Gibbons is CEO of Tourism Ireland
Sunday Indo Business