CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — The number of tourists visiting South Africa grew by about 10 percent last year. One nation helping that number grow is China.
At the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, last week, dozens of Chinese tourists stood taking in the view, grabbing photos, and conversing in Mandarin.
Among them, was 19-year-old Jason Zhu. He is a Chinese student going to school in Cape Town and was showing the sights to friends visiting from China.
"Cape Town very popular to come here to travel. Here, the place is very beautiful," he said.
As Chinese investment has grown in South Africa, so has Chinese tourism. China ranks fourth among countries sending tourists to South Africa, surpassing visitors from France.
Beauty, soccer help
Overall, tourism to South Africa grew by 10.2 percent from 2011 to 2012. While Europeans remain the biggest tourism group, the percentage of Chinese tourists grew by 56 percent from 2011 to 2012.
City Councilor Beverly Schafer represents the ward that is home to the famous Cape Town soccer stadium and the waterfront promenade. She said soccer helped spark this boom in tourism.
"The post-impact of the World Cup 2010, where we did not quite see as South Africans what would be the result of having such a big event, but the fact that Cape Town was so showcased around the natural beauty of it where our games were being held that it opened up the door to tourism such as our Chinese and Asian tourists," she said.
Mandarin guides, web sites
With more than 130,000 Chinese tourists visiting last year, South Africa's tourist destinations have taken notice. The CEO of Cape Town Tourism, Mariette Du Toit-Helmbold, said the industry is hiring Mandarin guides and translating web sites into Mandarin.
"The message really out to the industry has been, for us, really understand what are you are getting yourself into first. Make sure you are geared up to cater for specially the needs of the Chinese market," said Du Toit-Helmbold.
But she said that that if businesses plan to market to this burgeoning tourism group, they need to make bigger changes than just putting up a Mandarin sign at the door.
"My advice is if you really want to go after the Chinese market, build relationships. Invest in training of your staff and then really look at attention to detail, the cultural nuances and providing for that," she said. "Really go out of your way to put those little touches there that will be noticed by your Chinese traveler and visitors. Attention to detail in terms of the Chinese culture - food, important little details like providing chopsticks, things that you might almost not think about, but almost has to be top of mind. Chinese magazines, Chinese newspapers."
The increase in tourists has come from several factors. First, Toit-Helmbold said there is South Africa's inclusion in the economic group BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa], which has strengthened the relationship with China.
Also, South Africa recently added new visa application centers in Beijing and Shanghai, and last year South African Airways added direct flights from Beijing to Johannesburg.
A freelance Mandarin-speaking tour guide in Cape Town, Shuting Lunn, said demand for her work has steadily increased since she started in the business 10 years ago.
"Yes, of course I have seen more Chinese coming... wine farms or seal island, I have noticed they have Chinese pamphlets, you can see Chinese brochures and Chinese signs. I am sure for the Chinese they feel they are home and they are welcomed," said Lunn.
She said she used to be lucky to get a group of travelers each month, and now she is having to turn away business.
While Cape Town tourism has been geared toward European and American travelers, who tend to travel in smaller groups or as couples, the Chinese market, at least at this point, is more focused on group tours.
Toit-Helmbold said some wineries are adding new tasting rooms to accommodate large groups, whereas in the past they used to be geared toward more intimate rooms for smaller groups and couples.
"The average Chinese visitors that are coming prefer big-group travel, whereas Cape Town, in particular, has been more geared toward foreign independent travelers, smaller groups. So I do not think everyone in the industry is geared for the Chinese market as of yet," said Toit-Helmbold.
As this market continues to grow, however, Toit-Helmbold recommends businesses do their homework, and get ahead of the game.