Should New Zealand have a Chinese hotel? PM's comment sparks debate

Huge.

That's the potential to New Zealand from Chinese tourism, Prime Minister John Key says.

In 2012, Chinese tourists boosted the economy by an estimated $651 million, with 208,704 Chinese visiting in the year ended February 2013, a 37.7% increase on the previous period.

As the high dollar makes a long-haul trip less attractive for North American and European tourists, it seems the next wave of tourism growth will come from Asia generally and China, in particular.

As reported in this week's National Business Review print edition, this growth potential has prompted Mr Key to call for a Chinese hotel to be built in New Zealand.

He says New Zealand has to tailor its tourism offerings and be smarter about how they are marketed to attract higher-value tourists.

Of Chinese tourists he says: "Speaking to them in Japanese and thinking they can understand us isn't going to work."

The prime minister's office is yet to clarify whether Mr Key meant a Chinese-owned or Chinese-themed hotel.

However, the very idea of a kind-of cultural oasis for tourists – bringing their culture to this country to make them feel more comfortable, obviating the need for them to be ensconced in ours – has sparked debate about the future face of Asian-facing tourism.

NZ lacks capacity 
Associate Professor David Robb, of the University of Auckland's New Zealand Asia Institute, says Chinese tourists are generating large revenues for the New Zealand service sector and the economy generally.

Writing to NBR ONLINE by email from China, he says this country is lacks capacity for the overall tourist market, with further spend needed in infrastructure and the service sector, especially at the top end.

"It would be a marvellous – and I suspect ingenious – display of hospitality to reflect some of the culture of one's visitors in one's facilities, or at least one's services."

Dr Robb, director of the institute's China studies centre, says tourism workers could make more of an effort to greet visitors in their native language.

But does New Zealand risk being turned into some kind of theme park? A bad parody at the bottom of the Pacific?

"Of course many Chinese – probably most – would still opt for a more 'authentic' New Zealand experience, and if done or located poorly, any hotel may be quite negative to non-Chinese tourists and New Zealanders – not to mention the possibility of it becoming a white elephant if the Chinese market dried up for some reason."

Associate Professor Manuka Henare, associate dean of Maori and Pacific development at the University of Auckland Business School, tells NBR ONLINE a Chinese branded and totally Chinese-oriented hotel would essentially be a cultural bypass.

Why travel all this way to be surrounded by the same language, food and culture?

The answer, Dr Henare says, is for New Zealand to build more high-quality facilities – which Chinese tourists are used to – and a "real" hotel chain with multiple locations.

"The initial encounter with Maori culture, through the staff and architecture of the chain, would provide an authentic and welcome introductory exposure to the roots of New Zealand culture.

"This initial exposure to Maori will encourage some visitors to seek out a deeper encounter with Maori culture through additional activities."

That means more tills ringing in other parts of the tourism sector, which employs about one in 10 New Zealanders.

Firming bond 
New Zealanders and Chinese alike are noticing a firming bond between the countries: a free trade agreement leading to greater two-way trade, Fonterra farms in China and Chinese dairy factories being built here.

Dr Robb seeds the idea of a Kiwi-themed hotel in China.

What would that look like? Furnished with life-sized Buzzy Bees, with Marmite on tap and free jandals at the door?

Seriously, though, what a chance to showcase the finer Kiwi the rising Chinese middle class are sure to enjoy – the best of our sumptuous meats and wine, washed down with a sophisticated offering of Kiwi music.

Returning to the idea of a Chinese hotel in New Zealand, Dr Robb says perhaps the most appropriate place for it would be in downtown Auckland.

That would make sense.

Powershop's Mao Zedong ad was banned from being displayed on bus shelters by an authoritarian Auckland Transport in case it offended the local Chinese population.

Surely a Chinese-themed hotel would be more palatable.

dwilliams@nbr.co.nz

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