By Staff writer
Travel agent knowledge of China has been limited to date, but both Middle Eastern and Chinese carriers are now making concerted efforts to raise trade awareness of the country’s key destinations, particularly its capital, Beijing
China is bursting with opportunities that the Middle East travel trade is yet to exploit.
The vast country offers a diverse range of attractions for the leisure market, well-equipped convention centres and hotels for the MICE market, and, due to the exceptional growth rate of its economy, driven by a thriving manufacturing industry, China is fast emerging as one of the world’s largest trading hubs.
To date, travel between the Middle East and China has been limited to business purposes and flights between Dubai and key cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, have been driven by the burgeoning labour market.
Leisure traffic from the Middle East to China has typically been restricted to adventure and discovery tours undertaken by the odd adventurous ex-pat, and very occasionally, an inquisitive Arab family.
But times are changing, and trade and consumer awareness of China’s key attributes is about to be elevated to new heights.
There are two catalysts in force: firstly, both regional and international carriers are increasing their services and introducing new routes from the Middle East to China, and secondly, China is gearing up for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which will serve as a international PR campaign and stimulate demand.
With all eyes set to focus on Beijing, the region’s agents and operators are advised to think ahead and consider creating lucrative travel packages to the vibrant city.
September 1 marked a major breakthrough in terms off opening up Beijing to the Middle East’s masses – Emirates Airlines introduced a daily service from Dubai to Beijing in recognition of the Chinese capital’s potential.
Ghaith Al Ghaith, Emirates’ executive vice president of commercial operations worldwide, says Beijing has become “the nerve-centre of China”, a “magnet for multinational corporations”, and a “must on the business traveller’s itinerary”.
He also highlights Beijing’s appeal to leisure travellers, who are keen to explore its “myriad of attractions”.
“Who wouldn’t want to climb the Great Wall or visit the Forbidden City of the emperors at least once in their lifetime?” he says.
With this in mind, Emirates Holidays is expecting a rush of interest in packages to China, from the trade and consumers alike.
“We currently have just 200-250 passengers visit Beijing annually, but the new route will have a great impact because it gives direct access [to this destination],” explains Mathew D’Costa, product manager, Asia and Australasia, Emirates Holidays.
“Most people travelling to Mainland China want to visit iconic places, and Beijing is one of them because of [its close proximity to] the Great Wall etc.”
Although D’Costa is certain short break trips to China will become popular, he expects more growth in demand for packages encompassing Beijing in the itinerary, many of which have featured in the Emirates brochure for the past eight years.
These include the 10-days, nine-nights ‘Discover China’ package taking in Beijing, Hong Kong and Xian and the six-days, five-nights ‘A Taste of the East’ package, encompassing Hong Kong and Beijing.
Emirates now flies 17 times weekly to Hong Kong and daily to both Shanghai and Beijing, enabling agents to easily create tailormade packages to all three destinations.
“Frontline staff have already witnessed an increase in the number of agents and customers ringing up to find out about excursions in China [since the Beijing route was launched],” says D’Costa.
Fam trips are planned to ensure agents have the knowledge to respond to these queries.
James Evans, country manager, Cathay Pacific, also encourages agents to promote Beijing in combination with a Hong Kong stopover and advises them to improve their product knowledge of China in advance of the 2008 Olympics.
“In the lead up to the event there will be a lot of people who want to find out what Beijing has to offer; 2008 will be a bumper year,” he says.
“We have taken travel agents on trips to China to give them insight into how it has developed and the common feedback we get is that the perception of the difficulties in travelling to China are unfounded.”
As far as rival airlines are concerned, Emirates’ Beijing debut is a blessing in disguise.
“Now Emirates has started its daily service, the local community will start travelling to China in general,” says Atty Kurian, sales manager, Air China.
He is confident the increased awareness of what Beijing has to offer, thanks to Emirates’ extensive consumer advertising campaign and travel trade training efforts, will result in some business coming Air China’s way, particularly as its fares are “the best in the market”.
Emirates’ introductory return economy class fare was AED 1800 ($490), valid until September 30, compared to AED 1500 ($408) offered by Air China.
“But our main selling point is that we have 76 domestic connections and 67 international connections from Beijing,” adds Kurian.
Air China, which currently flies from Dubai to Beijing four times weekly put together Discover China packages this summer and took four groups to Beijing amounting to 112 passengers.
Kurian, expects leisure traffic, which currently amounts to 10% of total business on this route, to pick up when it adds two more weekly flights in January, and by summer 2008, it will have 11 flights weekly.
The carrier has already organised fam trips to Beijing and Shanghai in a bid to highlight the leisure and MICE opportunities the destinations offer.
“Beijing is ideal for the MICE market; it has all the five-star branded hotels there.
Shangri-La alone has four hotels in Beijing offering 1700 rooms and there are two more being built in time for 2008 taking its room count to 3000,” Kurian explains.
“There is no perception or awareness about China here; we are very keen to take the GCC travel trade there to ensure they are equipped to sell it.”
China Southern Airlines, which currently flies from Dubai to Beijing three times weekly, is also keen to work closely with the trade and as ATN went to press, was developing Beijing packages in time for Eid.
“We are currently in negotiations with [inbound] tour operators in China and once packages are in place, we’ll give out flyers promoting these to agents,” says Rayomand Kasad, sales and marketing executive at China Southern Airlines’ Dubai office.
The airline is currently popular with Chinese ex-pats living in the UAE, but Kasad, like Kurian, believes there are opportunities for Chinese carriers to win custom from other UAE ex-pats.
China Southern’s return economy class prices to Beijing also undercut Emirates’ introductory fare and matched Air China’s AED 1500 offer.
“We also have more convenient flying times.
Emirates lands at 10pm, which is no good for travellers who want to connect to domestic flights,” says Kasad. “Our flights land in Beijing at 12.45pm.”
According to D’Costa at Emirates Holidays, Beijing is a destination that would primarily appeal to the Middle East’s ex-pat community due to its cultural and historical attractions.
“But there is always the shopping aspect [of Beijing],” he says.
“People in the Middle East are becoming more aware of Chinese products and [Beijing’s major shopping area], Silk Alley is close to Tiananmen Square.
So you can look at selling Beijing from this angle.”
Both Kurian and D’Costa claim Beijing is also home to many halal restaurants and more outlets selling international cuisine are being built in time for the 2008 Olympics.
Beijing is already home to several well-known hotel brands, but several new properties are emerging all over town in the run up to Beijing 2008.
The revamped 171-room Raffles Beijing Hotel opened its doors in June and is hoping to attract the Middle East market with its top-end product.
Nine suites, each named after personalities associated with the hotel in its heyday, are one of the property’s key features.
“We haven’t received many Middle East guests yet, but we are working on featuring in Emirates Holidays’ brochure,” says Rosa Lei, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.
Additional five-star hotels include Grand Hotel Beijing and Kempinski Hotel Beijing Lufthansa Centre, both of which are part of The Leading Hotels of the World (LHW) group.
The former is geared up to serving the Arab market, according to Joe Zhou, the property’s assistant director of sales and marketing.
“We have family rooms and connecting rooms and offer a luxury car service for transfers and excursions,” he says.
The St Regis Hotel Beijing is also well equipped to meet the needs of Arab guests, says director of marketing communications, Alethea Lam “We are a 50% suite hotel.
Halal food and shisha can also be provided,”she says.
Helicopter flights over the Great Wall and excursions by Bentley or Mercedes Benz are also available and Lam emphasises the “excellent Chinese medicinal treatments” available in Beijing, such as cupping, acupuncture, massage and reflexology.
Not to be outdone, the Westin Beijing, which opens on October 18 and is part of the Starwood Group, will offer a 24-hour concierge service to help guests arrange tours, reservations, private cars and jets, spa treatments and private shopping tours.
“We will also offer two bedroom suites, which are ideal for families,” says Sara Lie, the hotel’s director of marketing communications.
“For longer stays we can offer our Westin Executive Residences, which offer a variety of one-, two- and three-bedroom residences.”
Shangri-La and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company L.L.C. will also open properties in Beijing in the next few years.