As China Premier Li Keqiang begins his first trip to Africa since taking office this week, all eyes are on the rapid growth of Chinese investment in African countries—a controversial issue which some experts and officials say amounts to exploitation. Along with the massive amount of Chinese money being poured into Africa for both resource extraction and trade is talk of a massive influx of Chinese tourists to Africa in the coming years, which China hopes will help sweeten deals in other areas such as energy and infrastructure.
Economic ties are at the forefront of Li’s weeklong visit to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola, and Kenya. During his visit, he is expected to sign around 60 deals in various sectors to add to China’s billions of dollars invested in African countries. China has been Africa’s largest trade partner since 2009, and last year, China’s direct investment in Africa reached $25 billion. While in Ethiopia, Li stated that “China will never pursue a colonialist path” in Africa, likely in response to allegations that China’s relationship with Africa is unequal.
In addition to massive aid contributions, African countries have seen a major boost in Chinese tourism revenue in recent years. Top locations for China’s visitors include South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, and tropical islands, but other areas are seeing growing interest as well.
Thanks to increased investment, more direct flights, and promotional efforts by African tourism boards and companies in the tourist industry, many countries in Africa have seen significant growth in the number of Chinese visitors. From 2012 to 2013, the number of Chinese tourists to South Africa grew by 10.2 percent to more than 130,000, while Tanzania’s number of Chinese tourists more than doubled to 13,000 last year. South African tour companies have quickly been adding Mandarin-speaking guides and translating their promotional materials into Chinese, while the country’s tourism authority has been holding exhibitions in major Chinese cities and added new visa application centers in Beijing and Shanghai last year. Island destinations near the coast of Africa like the Seychelles and Mauritius have been competing for the attention of beach-bound Chinese visitors with advertising, workshops, and trips for Chinese press and tour operators.
Chinese star Li Bingbing participating in a campaign to promote the conservation of elephants in Africa. (UNEP)
China’s government and media have also been working to promote tourism in Africa. The Chinese government has granted 27 countries official "tourist destination status" to make it easier for Chinese citizens to visit them. A live show about wildebeest migration between the Serengeti and Masai Mara that aired last year on CCTV was aimed at promoting tourism to Kenya, which saw more than 40,000 Chinese tourists in 2013 and expects more than 100,000 in 2016. "CCTV is helping us to expose this event (migrating wildebeest) to one of the world's largest populations. We hope it will encourage them to come to Kenya physically to see the animals for themselves,” said Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta in a China Daily interview.
Safari trips can especially appeal to Chinese tourists’ growing interest in individual and adventure travel. As the Chinese travel market matures and a growing number of travelers are no longer heading abroad for the first time, they are eschewing large bus travel and seeking out more unique experiences.
Luxury businesses are hoping to cash in on the Chinese travel boom. A Chinese developer is currently planning a 99-story office and luxury hotel tower—which will be the tallest building in Africa—slated for construction by 2017. As Africa’s luxury market takes off, shopping Chinese visitors are likely to give it an added boost as they have done elsewhere across the world.
Along with a massive amount of aid being pumped into Africa, the Chinese government's efforts to promote tourism fall on the soft side of efforts to deepen economic ties with the continent as more serious concerns such as labor disputes dampen attitudes toward China's role in Africa's economy.