Is Australia prepared for China-Australia Year of Tourism 2017?

Updated 2017-02-03 17:19:15 Xinhua

Australia is on track to cater for the rapid growth in Chinese tourist numbers as the country begins the China-Australia Year of Tourism in 2017, though more can be done.

The Chinese arrivals to Australia have grown 170 percent since 2009 to 1.3 million visitors in 2016 with predictions up to two million by 2021. Australian outbound tourism to China has grown 40 percent in the past five years to more than 700,000, with further growth expectations after six Chinese airlines agreed to jointly market tourism opportunities in Australia.

But questions have been raised about Australia's preparedness for an expected influx of Chinese tourists as growth continues to track near 19 percent. Australia has already surpassed its ambitions to entice the independent Chinese traveller down under -- 1 million visitors by 2020 -- whilst smashing the arrivals records set during the Japanese tourism boom in the late 1980s.

Australia's traditional and non-traditional source markets are also booming thanks to a low Australian dollar and increasing aircraft capacity. Arrivals from Korea grew at 29 percent in the year to September 2016, while Japan lifted 22 percent and U.S. and Singaporean visitor arrivals rose 18 percent and 15 percent respectively.

"There is a significant shortage of trained and qualified people to service the growing number of tourists, and infrastructure in parts of the industry has failed to keep up with tourism demand," University of Technology senior lecturer of tourism David Beirman said in an editorial published by The Conversation.

"If Australia wants to continue enjoying the benefits of its tourism boom, it needs to address these issues."

Some issues are already being addressed with some 1,000 new hotel rooms having been added to market over the past year, with more in the pipeline, including the Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour, due to open mid 2017 and Four Points by Sheraton Central Park to open in early 2018.

It's all part of the 59.8 billion Australian dollar (45.77 billion U.S. dollars) tourism infrastructure investment pipeline, of which 7.6 billion (5.82 billion U.S. dollars) is earmarked for accommodation projects, adding 15,900 new rooms to supply, according to Tourism Research Australia figures from mid-2016.

Most of the funding is directed to aviation projects, including new aircraft orders, though 14.6 billion Australian dollars (11.18 billion U.S. dollars) is earmarked for the arts, recreation and business services.

The infrastructure spend "isn't one consistent picture across the country" as the Perth and Brisbane markets have a large supply of hotel rooms, whereas Melbourne is consistent but Sydney is facing constraint, particularly in peak periods such as Lunar New Year celebrations, Tourism Australia managing director John O'Sullivan told Xinhua.

"So there's different pockets of investment that are appearing around the country that are in response to the demand, and we've seen most recently the announcement for the refurbishment of the (Capricorn Yeppoon) Iwasaki Resort and South Molle Island (in Queensland's Whitsundays) by Chinese Interests," O'Sullivan said.

Government policy initiatives are also allowing the sector to maximise opportunities. Australia recently expanded its 10-year visitor visa to Chinese citizens, while respective authorities signed an "open skies agreement", removing aircraft capacity restrictions on the seemingly lucrative China-Australia routes in anticipation of increased demand.

Complaints however have surfaced on service quality at local hotels in comparison to similar offerings in Southeast Asia that are at more competitive prices, which may dampen growth.

There's also language, cultural and general etiquette issues at play, on both the Australian and Chinese side.

A Xinhua investigation in 2016 found kickbacks to Australian tour guides were still continuing despite a raft of measures by local authorities to counter the practice, meanwhile in early November two Chinese tourist was arrested for urinating in Sydney's Botanic Garden, ignorant of Australian laws.

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