When travellers consider visiting China they’ll probably be thinking of two things: the Great Wall and Pandas.
Which, by the way, we don’t blame them. Pandas are pretty bloody cute.
When it comes to brand visibility, China seems to fall off the radar.
To find out why this is and get a better idea of what China has to offer, we caught up with Gerald Hatherly, from Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) Hong Kong.
Originally hailing from Canada, Hatherly is A&K’s in-house China specialist and member of the board for the Hong Kong office of A&K.
With over 30 years work experience with A&K in China and other regions of Asia, he has gained a wealth of knowledge on the countries, customs, and traditions of China and the nations of east and southeast Asia.
But Hatherly never set out to work in travel. He first went to China to spend four years studying Chinese, driven by a keen interest in Chinese history.
“I was all set to go back to Canada to do graduate school, and I saw an ad in the paper that was looking for tour guides for a company called Abercrombie & Kent. I didn’t know what Abercrombie & Kent was, but I applied, I got the job, and I said I’d do it for three months.”
“At the time I started, China had just begun opening up so I was able to grow my understanding of the culture with the company and watch China emerging to the rest of the world.”
Before too long, three months turned into 32 years.
Hatherly told us that when China first opened its doors to tourists in the mid to late 7Os, it was extremely popular among travellers because it had been closed for so long. He now feels the popularity has waned somewhat.
“As an Australian, you have seen the rise of China, and China today is a very powerful country. A powerful country can attract both positive and negative impressions.”
“I think to some degree China’s powerful position has affected people’s choice to travel there.”
“You have to separate the government of China from the country of China because in this world that we live in, there are no 2 destinations as diverse and as rich in culture and history as China.
“And unfortunately the government doesn’t transmit that message abroad so we do tend to fly under the radar.”
When asked what agents can do to paint a broader picture of China when selling it as a destination, Hatherly said they should be pushing the diversity of the country.
“China’s not just Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, it’s not just big cities. In fact, China’s got some of the most incredible natural landscapes: snow-capped mountains and deserts and incredible forest areas. It’s a great natural country. That’s never given in promotion,” He said.
“It’s one of the most ethnically diverse places on the face of the earth. Which again I think is something that people are so often surprised to learn. You know, China’s got 56 different ethnic cultures.”
“They’re Tibetans, they’re Mongolians, they’re all these other groups you may never have heard of. They speak different languages, they have different traditions, different philosophies, yet they live here and they are Chinese too.”
Hatherly said that over 32 years in the travel industry, the main thing he has noticed is the way in which the internet has totally changed the way people perceive the travel planning process.
“It’s allowed people to do a lot more research and understand a lot more about the destination that they travel to. But it has also given them the idea that they know more than they actually do, so it creates more work on our end.
“People see lies on the internet, ‘that this is only $1000 a night, why are you charging $1200 for it?’, you become challenged all the time so it doubles the work effort.”
However, he also admits the internet has done a lot of good for the industry.
“It also forces us to up our game in the sense that you’ve got to really validate why you should travel with A&K too,” he said.
“Any company or person can book the Four Seasons Hotel, so why are we paying you? It’s for experiential travel, we make experiences. It’s what we do on the ground, one of the reasons we have all these DMCs in all these different countries.
“The consumer is savvier in a way now and they will have more questions and they are pushing us to be better and to validate why we are A&K.”