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Written By

Mykala Wright


College of Business, Law and Governance

Publish Date

21 July 2021

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A changed industry

Before border closures and local lockdowns became the new normal, tourism was a bright light in Australia’s economy. For JCU Alumni Dr Haipeng Jin, understanding the consumer habits of the nation’s biggest inbound market was important for the future of the industry. Now, like most things in the pandemic-shaped landscape, Haipeng’s research focus has taken a turn.

In 2019 – before COVID-19 swept across the globe – tourism injected 60.8 billion dollars into the Australia economy. Of this, 44.6 billion was generated from international travellers, and 12.4 billion from Chinese visitors alone.

“Back then, the Chinese tourist market was the most valuable market in Australia. Chinese visitors spend more than anyone else, China was Australia’s biggest source of visitors, and Chinese arrivals were growing dramatically every single year,” Haipeng says.

While abroad, shopping makes up the highest proportion of the Chinese tourists’ travel expenditure – they spend more purchasing items than they do on accommodation or entertainment activities – and Haipeng was curious as to why. His research explores what motivates this market to buy products overseas and the features that are central to their shopping practices in Australia.

“When we try to sell Australia to Chinese visitors, we mention attractions like the Great Barrier Reef and the Sydney Opera House, but we overlook how much money they’re spending on shopping items,” Haipeng says.

“I started this research because I wanted to know why shopping is so important to Chinese travellers so that the tourism industry can provide improved services and better target this valuable market.”

A Chinese tourist looking at vitamins in an Australian supermarket.
A portrait of JCU alumni Dr Haipeng Jin.
Left: A Chinese tourist looking at vitamins in Coles. Right: Dr Haipeng Jin.

Savvy shoppers

In the pre-coronavirus climate, shopping as a tourist activity was becoming increasingly relevant. Not only were tourists putting aside time during their travels to engage in retail therapy, in some instances, shopping was the primary motivation for travel and a determining factor in destination choice.

Coined ‘shopping tourism,’ the trend is a response to changing consumer behaviours, and the most active participants are outbound Chinese travellers. At the time of his research, Haipeng found that Chinese tourists’ shopping processes began prior to departure.

“The Chinese consumers demand is not matched by supply in China, because a lot of the products they want to buy from Western brands are not available, or they’re far more expensive. Outbound travel provides them with a space where their consumerism can be met,” he says.

“So their purchases are very targeted. They do research before they travel, learning what to buy and where to shop. They find images online and store them on their phones.”

Technology is an integral part of travelling. The internet allows holidaymakers to plan and book with ease, while GPS applications make navigating foreign locations a breeze. For Chinese tourists, mobile phones play a central role in browsing and purchasing while abroad.

“A lot of the time they don’t know English very well, so the images they source and store on their phones pre-travel are a pivotal part of the process. For example, many of them purchase supplements and healthcare products from Chemist Warehouse when they visit Australia, and they will use the images to compare with items on the shelf. If they are the same they don’t hesitate to put them in their shopping cart,” Haipeng says.

“I also found that they would use their smartphones to scan the barcodes of items in Australia, and go to Chinese shopping websites to compare prices, read reviews, or get more information about the products. All of these actions help them make decisions about what to buy.”

Australian items that a Chinese tourist took home.
More items that a Chinese tourist brought in Australia and took home.
Left and right: Items Chinese tourists purchased in Australia and took home.

The cost of COVID-19

In an era of such interconnectedness, the coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on travel and tourism. While the industry was brought to a standstill, millions of jobs and trillions of dollars fell victim to the virus. Now, as the world grapples with the new normal, Haipeng has shifted his research focus to reflect that of the changing conditions.

After completing his studies at JCU in 2019, Haipeng returned to China where he planned to continue his research on Chinese tourist shopping in Australia.

“I want to learn more about these processes and motivations behind them, but unfortunately COVID-19 has caused challenges for tourism in Australia and the rest of the world. Now, my research will look at domestic tourist shopping here in China,” he says.

Despite the coronavirus outbreak first identified in the country, China’s response to and management of the virus has been world-leading. “At the moment COVID-19 has settled down in China, there are no domestic cases and we can travel anywhere within the country, which means I can continue my research.”

As travel bubbles between countries begin to emerge, Haipeng believes China is still a big potential market for Australia.

“Putting aside the current situation, in the long haul Australia has a lot of well-known resources to attract travellers, and as China’s economy grows more and more, people here have more money to spend,” he says.

“But after coronavirus, international tourists may have different priorities, which is why more studies and more research is required once international travel resumes. We need updated knowledge about what these travellers want in order to provide that service.”

As Haipeng points out, travel in the post-pandemic era will not be the same as it once was. Not only will country-specific bans and restrictions shape industry processes, but the behaviour and preferences of tourists are expected to shift radically. Perhaps tourism will not be brought back, but instead, the tourism of tomorrow will emerge.

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