Chinese travelers are the world’s top tourism spenders, shelling out almost $260 billion in 2017 alone. A growing part of that spend is now happening in Africa, encouraged by relaxed visa rules, increased interest in the continent’s cultural and historical sites, and initiatives that seek to appeal to Chinese tourists.
Last week, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China launched a joint loyalty program with Kenya’s Stanbic Bank, aiming to create incentives for travel, shopping, and leisure to tourists visiting the two nations. The “I Go Kenya—I Go China” scheme follows the bank’s similar program in South Africa last year, which rewarded its cardholders by offering a range of discounts and special offers from merchants across the travel, hospitality and lifestyle sectors. The state-owned financial behemoth is doing this as part of its plan to internationalize, and push its banking card product abroad.
Meanwhile, Africa is becoming increasingly attractive destination for Chinese tourists. A recent survey by the global travel platform Travelzoo found that the continent was the top destination of choice for Chinese tourists seeking more adventurous holidays in 2018, beating Japan and Australia. Visitors were especially drawn to Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa, Namibia, Madagascar, and Tanzania. This year, Kenya also launched a marketing campaign to target China, hoping to boost the over 53,000 Chinese visitors who already came to the country last year.
Part of the interest in these nations came following the introduction of relaxed visa rules for Chinese citizens. For instance, after the easing of visa requirements in Tunisia and Morocco, there has been a 240% and 378% year-over-year growth in Chinese arrivals respectively, according to the travel intelligence company ForwardKeys. As tourism packages diversify, and airline travel becomes easier and more affordable, Travelzoo says the continent will only continue “to grow in popularity” with many Chinese drawn to its rich cultural heritage and natural beauty.
The boom in travel to Africa is another example of how China is redefining Africa’s economic landscape. The continent’s engagement with Beijing is primarily as a business partner, with Chinese companies getting lucrative contracts and experience overseas while host nations receive needed infrastructure, jobs, and eventually technology and skills. Yet increasingly, China is boosting its diplomatic and military presence in the continent, and is influencing young Africans through education and training. This is raising concern among American officials, even as the Trump administration has adopted isolationist policies that are deterring Chinese tourists from visiting the US.
African governments, businesses, and tour agencies are eager to tap into this sector and introduce localized tourism products. And indeed, tourism is a powerful vehicle for economic growth: As of 2014, tourism contributed to 8.5% of Africa’s gross domestic product, according to the United Nations trade arm, generating 7.1% of all jobs.