The hottest tourist destination for the Chinese visitors now is — surprisingly — Africa. According to various tourism websites and mobile apps, the number of Chinese tourists in Africa has more than tripled vs last year. This is no doubt a shock to many. What we read from headlines are that Chinese tourists flood into the US and Europe to buy Chanel, Hermès, Tory Burch, Romanée-Conti, and Opus One. But Africa? What’s there to buy?
Here’s something you probably never heard of. Three of the most popular Chinese reality shows on air now — Flowers On Trip, Divas Hit the Road, and Our Journey — are all about celebrities traveling to Africa. On the shows, some of the most popular Chinese celebrities experienced local cultures in Morocco, rescued giraffes in Namibia, or survived in the wilderness in Tanzania. Besides, Wolf Warrior 2, which recently made the highest single-territory grosser in Chinese history with $600M+ box office sales, is about a retired soldier rescuing Chinese workers in Africa from the local pirates.
If you are curious about media and celebrity’s impact on tourism in China, here’s another good example. In Dec 2012, Lost in Thailand, featuring 5 of the most hit Chinese movie stars, marked 9.3 million views within 5 days of release and created a national record in box office sales. As a result, in the following Chinese New Year holiday, Thailand saw 3x increase in Chinese visitors and became the top destination for the Chinese. Director Xu Zheng was later well-received by then Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra because of the movie’s success, and the movie’s investor Enlight Media saw its HK-listed share price jumped up by 64% within a month.
When I was at Franklin Templeton’s Global Macro team, we traveled to many African countries to meet with key government officials in early 2014. It was only half a year after the bombing in Westgate Mall in Kenya, and when I was wandering around downtown Nairobi, there were still heavily-armed securities in front of all the stores and hotels. When we landed in Abuja, soldiers blocked the highway for a Minister’s entourage, and later that day there was a Boko Haram attack just dozens of miles away from town. On our way back we stopped by another country in West Africa for fuels, and in order to prevent the upcoming presidential election from riots, all internet connections were shut down in that country for 72 hours. The day we finally left that country was the day when Ebola broke out.
However chaotic and dangerous it might seem, I witnessed how China has shaped the local economy. The recently-built highways were in much better condition compared to the local dirt roads. There were many construction sites in booming business areas. Even the security guard at the Ministry of Finance in Kenya said 谢谢 to me after a body search — and he said it in such perfect tones even compared to some of my Chinese students at Carleton. More recently, Huawei has also been driving the booming ICT sectors in many countries. Even just last week, one of my best friends from middle school, a promising Hotchkiss- and Yale-educated Chinese young man, quit his hedge fund job in New York and headed to Uganda to help build a hydropower plant.
Tourism will have significant spillover effect on African economy beyond just infrastructure and natural resources. Researches show that Chinese tourists in Africa on average spend 40% more than their American or European counterparts. This would be a huge boom for local economies, especially in countries like Kenya whose tourism suffered a lot from terrorist attacks in the past years. Ecommerce and retail will benefit from tourists’ demand for local arts and crafts. Sharing economy such as Airbnb and Uber will see skyrocketing volume because these young Chinese visitors are very tech-savvy — not to mention that Airbnb represents a much better cultural experience than international hotel chains. Soon we might even see tourists riding ofo or Mobike around Lagos or Nairobi.
Can’t wait to more in Africa during my honeymoon next year :)