China's tourism market, which is officially expected to be worth over $2.6 billion to New Zealand by 2021, is growing into an increasingly diversified business with package tours increasingly shunned in favour of independent travel, say delegates to New Zealand's Trenz annual tourism conference in Rotorua.
Though package tours still dominate the Mandarin-speaking market with around 70 to 80 per cent share, the rise of free independent travelers (FITs) and the increasing appetite for individualised excursions are transforming the business of Chinese travel agents.
FITs refer to those who come to New Zealand not via any tours that combine transport, lodging, sightseeing all into one price package, and therefore have the freedom to work out their own itineraries.
"People start to get fed up with being dragged around following the heavily beaten path on a guided bus tour, which often includes stops for shopping," said Mark Ma, managing director of Master Travel Group, which is actively exploring opportunities for Chinese FITs in New Zealand and new routes, like northern excursions to Tauranga.
Chinese people are already likely to be giving package tours and pressurised gift shop excursions second thoughts. Travel agencies rely on heavy commissions from the shops to make money while keeping their package prices down to allure more customers, and urban legends abound in China already about unpleasant shopping travel in China.
Last month, a video of a female tour guide trying to coerce and threaten her customers into shopping in China's Yunnan Province went viral online, which eventually resulted in her license being suspended.
However, organised tourist shopping in New Zealand is considered properly regulated, and there are things Chinese tourists find worth buying, like wool products and honey, said Amber Chen, manager of A China Travel, which is among the top three approved Chinese travel agencies in New Zealand.
While competing in the price-sensitive mass-market for Chinese tourism, where price difference could be just tens of dollars, the company is also sharpening its focus on high-end individualised tourism, such as exclusive golf, spa, wine and food tasting tours. Chen said she has recently booked a top-notch golf tour for a Chinese group coming next February, on a $1,800 a day per person budget.
For those who are more budget conscious, a choice is to take hassle-free tours offered by local travel agencies. After flying into New Zealand as an independent traveller, a tourist can go on sightseeing tours by hopping on and off Kiwi buses to popular destinations at their own pace, and stay at hotels that the travel agent negotiates at a discounted price.
To really go on an "off-the-beaten" track, one has to rent a car. Jeff Lin, who runs logistics for Chinese travel agencies in New Zealand, launched his car rental business, A Rentals, for Chinese self-drive tourists last year with a new fleet of Subarus.
"This is the thing for young and adventurous people. I have got quite some customers from Shanghai, and the nearby Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces," Lin said.
Asked about the "dangerous tourist drivers" issue making headlines these days, he said tourists should learn to be more careful on the road, and about the car they choose. A four-wheel drive SUV is really needed for some demanding road conditions on the South Island