Jason Young says New Zealand tourist providers should pay attention to advancements in Chinese agritourism

By Jason Young*

I’ve been incredibly lucky, over the last decade, to have the opportunity to travel regularly to China. In recent years, my research has turned to rural China allowing me to break out of the mega-cities and see some of the countryside.

During visits to farms and villages and by speaking with local academics, government officials and farmers, I’ve noticed the rise of Chinese agritourism. China has urbanised very fast. In the early 1980s roughly 200 million people lived in urban areas. Today the figure is closer to 700 million with projections of 1 billion urban dwellers by 2030.

Urban areas are often heavily populated, polluted and can lack green spaces. It is no surprise then to see people seeking ways of reconnecting with the natural environment and beginning to romanticise the image of a simpler rural life.

In the weekends and on holidays, large numbers of city dwellers escape to the countryside. They are attracted by three components of the Chinese agritourism experience.

农家饭 (nongjiafan) or Country Style Cuisine is similar to home style cooking and is found in a swathe of restaurants popping up in rural China. Its popularity is partly due to the enjoyment of eating authentic rural cuisine in a restaurant set out like a traditional rural household. Added attraction comes from a new food experience in a country where good cooking is a national, and increasingly international, fascination.

特产 (techan) or Local Specialty in agriculture and food describes the locally produced products and dishes so central to the Chinese tourist experience. Tourists often purchase gifts for friends and family when visiting new places. That gift is usually a local specialty and commonly includes locally produced food.

Tourists are attracted to authentic local specialties like xiaolongbao in Shanghai, Peking duck in Beijing or guantang baozi in Xian.

绿色食品 (lüseshipin) or Green Food describes a range of food that is pollution-free, sometimes organic and grown free from overuse of pesticides and fertilizers. Concerns over food safety and the authenticity of ingredients are driving a desire to secure fresh healthy foods.

Chinese agritourism gives people the opportunity to have a controlled experience of seeing and even harvesting fresh food and to eat at restaurants situated in and supplied by the areas where green food is grown.  

On my last trip to China I experienced this in Hebei where we paid more to pick strawberries than the price of washed, packed and marketed product at the local supermarket.

On a different trip to Hebei I visited a couple of large rural cooperatives that had secured investment and were developing tourist facilities to compliment their agricultural activities. 

These were large operations with their own hotels, restaurants, pools, spas, museums, specialty shops, as well as agricultural fields and paddocks open to visitors.

People appreciated the beauty of the ‘natural’ environment and the great taste of locally produced food while also remaining close to the comforts of urban life. Yes, there was free Wi-Fi.

As the industry develops, Chinese visitors to New Zealand are likely to have preconceived views of what an agritourism experience involves. We should therefore pay attention to advancements in Chinese agritourism.

For tourist providers, it helps to know that Chinese tourists may want to buy local specialties and to eat authentic locally produced food. Food manufacturers looking to capture a share of the tourist market could consider developing and marketing products that play to a regional specialization. Local governments considering tourism promotion and infrastructure development can identify and develop their regional differentiation and promote these local specialties. 

Developing the New Zealand Story at the national and regional level to accentuate local food specialties, to promote our local cuisine and to demonstrate our green food credentials can resonate with potential visitors and help disperse the tourist dollar to the regions.

New Zealand has the best ingredients of what agricultural tourism offers in China. Understanding what is valued in Chinese tourism and how these ideas resonate with the Chinese tourist is the first step towards more effectively conveying the value of the New Zealand experience.

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*Jason Young is a Lecturer in Political Science and International Relations and a Research Fellow at the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington.