With the summer high season approaching, outbound travel from China is slated to enjoy its best year ever in 2015. Not only are Chinese travelers becoming more numerous; they are also becoming more adventurous. Individual travel exceeded group travel for the first time in 2014, and although it receives a very small percentage of visitors from China, the latest region to enjoy fast growth in Chinese tourist arrivals is Latin America.
Now, countries from Mexico to Argentina are taking notice, and making their first-ever attempts to proactively court the mainland Chinese tourist.
The ties linking China to the region are significant and deep. Trade and investment between China and Latin America has increased dramatically over the past decade and a half. Since 2000, China has replaced the United States and Europe as the number one trade partner of Brazil, Peru, and Chile, and China is in the top five for several more in the region. China has been a seemingly insatiable buyer of Latin American minerals and agricultural products in recent years, as well as a supplier of industrial and manufactured goods. But only recently have Latin American authorities begun to take an interest in the Chinese impact on another important industry: tourism.
Chinese tourist arrivals in the region are increasing rapidly, albeit from a low base. Mexico has seen a 58 percent increase in Chinese tourists since 2013, with over 75,000 arrivals in 2014 alone. Colombia, Chile, and Argentina have also seen increases of more than 20 percent year-on-year. As they are from New York to Narita, Chinese tourists are big spenders in the region too—this year, Chinese tourists have been the top foreign spenders in Chile and ranked highly across the region.
Meanwhile, curiosity in Latin America is skyrocketing in mainland China. Leading Chinese online travel agency Ctrip named Peru as its destination of the year this January, while Chinese magazine Top Travel selected Chile as its featured destination of 2015, citing the country’s “immense tourism capacity.” With its vast diversity, Latin America is generally perceived in China as colorful, exotic, and friendly—if also often unsafe. This should be an area for concern among tourism officials, as in a 2014 survey by Hotels.com, Chinese tourists said that safety is their number one concern when choosing a travel destination.
Although connectivity has constrained tourism growth in the past, there are signs that things are changing. Only two countries in Latin America, Mexico and Brazil, currently offer service to China. However, Gulf carriers have rapidly expanded their service to Mexico and South America, offering easier connections for travelers from Asia. And with business links deepening, Air China recently announced progress in launching flights between Beijing and Lima or Santiago in the near term, pending selection of a fueling stop.
Visa restrictions have been lifted and or relaxed across the region. Ecuador recently announced visa-free travel for Chinese citizens, while Chile eliminated all visa fees for Chinese visitors. Colombia has waived visa requirements for Chinese citizens in possession of U.S. or Schengen visas, and Mexico allows visa-free access for Chinese citizens arriving from the United States with valid visas. Other countries such as Argentina and Brazil are working to facilitate visa processing.
Several countries have also begun extensive education programs for the tourism and hospitality sector. Argentina and Mexico have launched China-Readiness efforts, and Argentina’s “Argentina Welcome Chinese” offers a training and certification program that also rates establishments on their “China friendliness.” Similarly, Mexico recently launched a certificate program called “Cerca de China” (“Close to China”) as a designation and guarantee to Chinese visitors that they will find “welcoming, Mandarin-speaking staff that appreciate and understand Chinese traditions,” according to Francisco Maass Peña of Mexico Tourism.
With an ever more affluent, adventurous and sophisticated population, expect to see even more Chinese visitors across Latin America in the years to come—given their concerns about safety, language, and transportation are addressed by a presumably more “China-Ready” region.
Philip Guarino is Paris-based partner at China Luxury Advisors.