Will China provide tourism opportunities for Prince Rupert?

The question sometimes arises about the potential for Chinese tourism to Prince Rupert.

The question sometimes arises about the potential for Chinese tourism to Prince Rupert. I don’t think that this is a realistic short-term goal.

Well-known industry analysts Chemistry Consulting touched on Chinese tourism during a presentation I attended last year. According to the UN’s World Tourism Organization, “China has shown by far the fastest growth with regard to expenditure on international tourism in the last decade.” There was an 85 per cent increase in Chinese overseas travel 2005-2010, and the 2010 number will almost double by 2020.

Canada finally received Approved Destination Status (ADS) in June 2010. Even without ADS Canada saw a 66 per cent increase during that same 2005-2010 period, and BC saw a 42 per cent increase. However, during that period the proportion of total Chinese outbound tourists coming to Canada declined from .38 per cent to .34 per cent – meaning that Canada is losing market share to other countries. And in the percentage of total Chinese visitors coming to Canada, BC declined from 71 per cent to 61 per cent in 2005-2010.

So while the Chinese market offers a massive opportunity, Canada has a lot of work to do. We have work to do in expanding our air capacity and direct flights, in building relationships with tour operators, and especially in effective marketing. And from our perspective, BC also has to work to regain market share lost to the rest of Canada.

Now consider the nature of the Chinese market as it stands today. It is essentially a mass tourism market – “Canada and America in 13 days,” “Canada in 12 days,” and so on. Iconic attractions feature high on these itineraries. Vancouver, Whistler, even Butchart Gardens benefit from large groups moving through on brief visits. Increasing this traffic will of course bring tremendous benefits to British Columbia, and the provincial government has announced its intention to dramatically step up Chinese marketing activity.

As an aside to this discussion, I question this move. I don’t personally believe that it is necessarily wise to boost our efforts in China at the expense of proven markets. In the face of economic crises, airline and border security issues, and so on, our vital American, European, and other markets are dwindling and we need to step up our efforts in those markets. The BC government has dropped its investment in tourism by 42 per cent since absorbing Tourism BC, so the decision to pour resources into a new market at the expense of proven markets seems more political than anything else.

Still, if one wished to build a new market, this is the right approach. Only the province has the budget to create awareness of BC in China. Once that awareness begins to build, the large cities, and eventually even smaller communities such as Prince Rupert, can begin to find unique opportunities and use limited resources to wisely capitalize on those opportunities.

Yet where will Prince Rupert’s opportunities lie in the case of the Chinese market? Clearly mass tourism is not our opportunity (nor is it likely to be an opportunity for any part of the province outside the Golden Triangle). Our wilderness destination offers unique Northwest Coast cultures, sport fishing and wildlife watching. If there were a large awareness of BC in China, and a large desire to visit, we might be able to develop a very lucrative business in high-end, independent travelers wishing to experience these things.

Yet there are intimidating “what-ifs” involved in this. To jump into an untested market that at this point offers no foreseeable benefit to rural British Columbia, and build the amount of visitation that would allow us develop this high-end niche market, seems a pretty long shot. I do think that we need to grab whatever opportunity exists in the Chinese market, but Prince Rupert’s very limited resources must be devoted to rebuilding our proven markets.

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