As Chinese tourism is gradually shifting toward independent travel and more authentic experiences, niche tourism sectors such as ecotourism, adventure travel, and sports tourism hope to be next in line to benefit from China’s tourism boom. In New Zealand, booming demand for skydiving among Chinese visitors has led to a shortage of licensed skydiving instructors, and companies are struggling to meet the sudden rise in demand.
Derek Melnick of NZONE, one of many skydive operators in New Zealand, told journalists that the number of Chinese customers they serve surged by 50 percent in 2016.
Investors seem to be paying attention to New Zealand’s skydiving boom as well. In 2015 and 2016, a stock market-listed Australian adventure travel company went on a buying spree and acquired three New Zealand skydive operators. For what is usually a relatively niche market segment with many small local players, ongoing market consolidation underlines the expectation of continued growth in adventure travel.
However, increasing demand for a niche tourism product isn’t entirely frictionless, as the case of skydiving in New Zealand proves. Heavily reliant on suitable weather conditions, bookings often get canceled for reasons beyond skydive operators’ and tourists’ control. To mitigate the risk of not being able to do a skydive, Chinese travel agents try to double book their customers—hopefully ensuring that they at least get to do one jump. While undoubtedly profitable for the skydive operators, especially if customers only end up doing one of the jumps, it risks alienating clients who lose out on the chance to go skydiving in favor for double-booked Chinese customers.
Unfortunately for skydive operators and prospective customers alike, licensing requirements for skydiving instructors are making it difficult to scale up operations to meet demand. To be able to do tandem jumps—skydiving together with a customer fastened to their chest—instructors need to have done at least 750 solo jumps. Not only does it require a substantial investment, but it also takes a long time to reach the number of required jumps. More favorable skydiving conditions in other countries have led to some prospective skydiving instructors to travel overseas to achieve the number of required jumps quicker. However, the shortage of instructors remains a problem, leading many companies to hire foreign talent to catch up with demand.
The case of skydiving in New Zealand also raises the question of what constitutes a typical Chinese adventure tourist. While the idea of a typical, more adventurous, tourist is perhaps that of a young person in the upper-middle class, skydiving operators report that many Chinese customers are families going skydiving together.
For many Chinese tourists visiting New Zealand, the sense of authenticity is particularly important for free and independent travelers (FITs), leading one Chinese tour operator to warn tourism officials not to open the floodgates for too many Chinese tour groups. Less profitable than FITs and risking to shatter the feeling of authenticity by appearing in droves, the argument goes that they’re not a market segment worth betting on. Instead, FITs, whom the tour operator describes as increasingly adventurous, are seen as the way forward for New Zealand’s tourism sector.
Chinese FITs are not only more profitable, but are also more likely to explore different tourism niches such as skydiving—making tourist dispersion less of a challenge than with group travelers. It certainly helps that activities like skydiving are more profitable than Chinese tour buses going from sight to sight as well. Of course, many other destinations would be happy to welcome adventurous Chinese FITs if New Zealand continues to struggle with meeting demand.