Africa’s relationship with China is complicated. While China has a profound interest in the continent, Chinese investments and other economic initiatives are often met with resistance or criticism.
And when China is not getting bad publicity for, allegedly, being a neo-colonialist power, then there’s often news about Chinese poachers or successful attempts to curb them. While tourism is sometimes criticized as a neo-colonial phenomenon, it’s probably one of the least controversial aspects of the Sino-African trade.
Perhaps, it’s with this backdrop that many African countries have decided to make tourism the focus of national conversations about engagement with China. With China undeniably a force to be reckoned with in travel, it makes sense. For previous tourism hotspots in North Africa that are now struggling to fill resorts, it makes even more sense.
As a result, Chinese tourists are now welcomed with open arms around Africa. In Northern African countries that used to rely on European visitors (who dramatically decreased after the Arab Spring), Chinese tourists are more than welcome. In Tunisia, and Morocco, Chinese travelers can travel entirely visa-free. In Egypt, Chinese citizens can acquire a visa on arrival or visa-free access if they hold a certain amount of money, have a high-end hotel reservation, and a return ticket.
This trend is largely echoed throughout the rest of Africa, with numerous countries on every side of the continent welcoming Chinese visitors with either visa-free or visa-on-arrival regimes. Zimbabwe is the latest African countries to now mull reducing visa requirements for Chinese visitors and would join a list of over 20 African countries with liberal visa regimes toward Chinese nationals.
Unfortunately, however, it takes more than an inclusive visa policy to attract Chinese travelers and tour groups from China—as many countries throughout Africa are finding out the hard way. With few direct flights between Africa and China, and Chinese consumers largely unaware (or simply misinformed) of destinations, sights, and experiences on offer in Africa, it is difficult to make a splash or meet lofty ambitions. Africa often being viewed as an unsafe destination in combination with Chinese travelers being very safety-conscious doesn’t make things easier either.
In fact, even in better-known and more developed tourist destinations like South Africa, Chinese tourism growth is stagnant despite policy intended to boost it.
Even more depressingly, perhaps, less developed African nations are facing unexpected—and seemingly extremely basic—difficulties in cashing in on Chinese tourism. Equatorial Guinea, a country which offers Chinese passport holders visa-free entry, recently invested in a stand of substantial size at the ITB China tourism exhibition in China for marketing purposes. Unfortunately, it was unable to promote itself to visiting buyers and Chinese trade media at the exhibition for one simple reason: all staff were barred entry to China due to undisclosed visa issues. It goes without saying that its visa-free agreement with China wasn’t reciprocal.
Things are complicated even further by the fact that China is eager to promote its tourists as an enormous potential cash cow, and as Jing Travel has previously pointed out, Chinese state media often promote misleading statistics about how Chinese tourism is—apparently—booming throughout Africa.
Instead of using tourism as a vague carrot in trade negotiations with African countries, China should work together with its African trading partners to properly address the issues stymying the growth of Chinese travel to Africa. The Chinese state owns numerous international airlines, hotel groups, publications, and travel agencies. Certainly, it could do more to support tourism development in an Africa it claims to value so highly.