Adam Weaver says talking about Chinese travellers seems to take precedence over talking with them

By Adam Weaver*

Statistics-driven thinking is nearly ubiquitous. Numbers are appealing because they can be cross checked, and quite often they possess an aura of authority. Of course, statistics must be treated with caution; the adage “lies, damned lies, and statistics” comes to mind.

Statistics have a vital role to play, but there is also a case to be made for collecting and analysing other types of data that could advance understanding of international travel markets. Prior to exploring such a case, it is worthwhile examining the power of statistics to define agendas with respect to a particular international travel market – the Chinese outbound travel market.

Statistics garner media attention. In New Zealand, a range of statistics related to the Chinese market have come to prominence. Newspaper stories and their statistics are typically linked to a particular issue, and this issue may subsequently be eclipsed by a different pressing issue accompanied by a different set of supporting numbers. A cycle of successive news-making episodes is apparent.

Newspaper reports in New Zealand about the Chinese market in the early 2000s often focused on their poor spending relative to other markets. Statistics prompt comparisons, and the Chinese market did not stack up favourably vis-à-vis other international markets with respect to expenditure.

However, as China became more affluent, wealthier people seeking distinctive experiences were seen as a profitable segment for New Zealand to target. Newspaper articles, by 2011, addressed the emergence of Chinese visitors who had a greater capacity to spend. Statistics that sought to capture the tremendous size of the Chinese travel market, including the rising number of millionaires who wanted overseas vacations, gave the impression that spectacular opportunities were available to those equipped to exploit them.

More affluent visitors tended to travel more independently, and rising numbers of travellers were starting to reject the types of experiences offered by inexpensive package tour providers. Car and campervan rental companies in New Zealand were seen as potential beneficiaries. Statistics fuelled optimistic narratives about the Chinese market, especially its ability to spend more and move about the country in a more exploratory, dispersed manner.

In the past two years, attention has turned to road safety and driving. Several high-profile road accidents have resulted in the deaths of both New Zealanders and Chinese visitors. The seriousness of these situations has been explored through descriptive accounts as well as numerical terms. Statistics are frequently used to fathom risks and hazards. In this case, numbers were used in newspaper articles to incite concern about the number of accidents in Otago and Southland involving drivers from right-hand traffic countries, including China.

Optimism about potential future spending by independent travellers has been tempered by the dangers that accompany automobile use, especially by visitors to New Zealand who are tired upon arrival or unfamiliar with the rules of the road.

Through statistics, travel markets become targets for intervention and action. The rising affluence of the Chinese market, together with the development of New Zealand’s marketing efforts in China, meant that more profitable segments – for example, the very wealthy – could be pursued.

In response to the emergence of independent, well-to-do travellers, the Holiday Parks Association New Zealand sponsored the development of videos available via YouKu – the Chinese equivalent to YouTube – that were designed to help Chinese visitors become familiar with campervan use. A market, which through various key statistics was seen to be increasingly in a position to undertake independent travel, was also believed to be worthy of an informed industry response.

Concerns about traffic safety and overseas drivers have prompted a collection of initiatives – for example, brochure-based campaigns and promises by vehicle rental companies to share information about drivers whose rental contracts are terminated. For some, these steps are going in the right direction but do not go far enough.

Statistics serve important ends and no doubt offer valuable insight into phenomena. However, it might be worthwhile to engage in more dialogue – language barriers notwithstanding – with Chinese travellers. Statistics, as they have been used in New Zealand newspaper articles, have treated Chinese travellers as impersonal objects of commercial interest rather than as individuals from whom one could obtain helpful perspectives. Numbers, by their nature, privilege the aggregate and the average over the individual.

Talking about Chinese travellers seems to take precedence over talking with them if New Zealand newspapers are anything to go by. The process of creating experiences that appeal to Chinese travellers should benefit from more conversations with them. Creating effective messages with respect to safe driving should involve a good understanding of the intended audience. A market that is concerned about safety while travelling might just have some thoughts worthy of consideration in promoting safer driving at the destination. Have we thought to ask?

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Dr. Adam Weaver is a Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management at Victoria University of Wellington. This is part of our regular weekly series focused on understanding the challenges and opportunities for New Zealand in our trade with China.