Is sports tourism the next big thing for Chinese tourism?

On Sunday, I took part in the Gold Coast half marathon. This was my fourth time running the GC half, and I’m happy to say I got another personal best (PB) – I’ll tell you my time at the end of this post.

But *perhaps* the bigger story is the growth of the Chinese contingent taking part in Australia’s largest road race. Five years ago, only one Chinese runner finished the Gold Coast Marathon. This year, over 350 Chinese registered to pound the streets of the Gold Coast for some 42 kilometres, and many more Chinese chose to take part in the half marathon or shorter events.1 Why the sudden explosion of Chinese interested in running?

As the Economist has recently noted, the tastes of Chinese consumers are changing and becoming more sophisticated. Running and exercise are some of the biggest beneficiaries of those changes:

Brands that promise healthy lifestyles are also thriving. In a recent survey, the top complaint by Chinese consumers was poor food safety and the next biggest grouse was shoddy health care. These attitudes have helped restaurants and supermarkets with names like “Element Fresh” and “Pure and Whole” spread like organic mushrooms across the land. Yoga and running are all the rage (in March thousands of entrants suffered injuries trying to finish a marathon in Qingyuan, a southern city), and fitness firms are booming. Adidas, a German sportswear company, saw sales rise by 18% in China last year.

The organisers of the Gold Coast Marathon are to be applauded for their work in trying to capitalise on this trend and attract more Chinese runners. But what exactly have they done to get Chinese runners interested and ensure their numbers in the future? Well, probably a lot of things, but here are three that I noticed:

  1. Hiring a “key opinion leader” (KOL): KOLs are a particularly effective way of reaching Chinese consumers, especially through social media. Gold Coast Tourism hired Wang Xiao, the former editor of Cosmo magazine in China and now one of China’s leading voices on female fitness and wellbeing. She has almost 600,000 followers on Weibo – almost more than Tourism Australia or Queensland Tourism’s Weibo pages combined! Her posts on the race and her adventures around the Gold Coast have been getting thousands of “likes” and being shared hundred of times.
    Wang Xiao (second from left) is a “key opinion leader” among Chinese fitness enthusiasts and was hired by Gold Coast Tourism to promote the Gold Coast Marathon to her almost 600,000 online followers.
  2. Producing related video content: Gold Coast Tourism also worked with Wang Xiao to produce a series of fitness videos set on the GC. We already know that video content is a powerful marketing tool, but particularly so amongst Chinese consumers who spend so much time watching videos on their mobiles.
  3. Making it easy for Chinese to participate and enjoy the race: I noticed when registering this year that I could now choose Chinese as my default language – which I think must be a first! From adding Chinese language functionality to the website registration, to having Chinese speaking race announcers and tents at the event for participants from Greater China, the organisers have clearly thought about how they could make taking part in the race easier and more enjoyable for Chinese runners.

So, there’s a few lessons for other running festivals. But other than running, what sports and sporting events could target Chinese tourists? In my view, there are three sports that could really benefit from an increased focus by Chinese on healthy living – soccer, tennis and golf.

  • Soccer: China’s President, Xi Jinping, is a massive soccer fan, and following his lead, the Chinese government has been spending billions on developing the sport in China.2 Millions of Chinese support English Premier League and European teams, and this has resulted in many of the biggest clubs visiting China during the off-season for several years now. I myself remember watching a very sluggish Barcelona team (with Ronaldinho making a cameo appearance) take on Beijing Guo’an back in 2007. Melbourne hosts the International Champions Cup in late July featuring Tottenham Hotspur, Athletico Madrid and Juventus, and this is exactly the kind of event that would be very popular with Chinese tourists. According to Mailman Group’s Red Card Report, these three teams are within the top 20 most popular clubs amongst Chinese soccer fans, with Tottenham in 8th place, Juventus in 12th and Athletico Madrid ranked 17th.3
  • Tennis: Tennis has really taken off in China in the last few years, propelled by the success of Li Na, winner of the 2014 Australian Open. Following her retirement, the organisers of the tournament have signed Li Na up as a “Friend of the Australian Open”. Tennis Australia is also working hard to develop strong connections with China, from partnering with Sina Sports to broadcast the tournament to Chinese fans, to running training programs for juniors and opening a Hong Kong office. As the Financial Times recently noted, “tennis is seen as a status symbol for the socially ambitious”.4 The same could be said for international travel – so why not combine the two?
    Following Li Na's success at the 2014 Australian Open, tournament officials have seen a significant increase in Chinese visitors.
    Following Li Na’s success at the 2014 Australian Open, tournament officials have seen a significant increase in Chinese visitors.
  • Golf: Even more so than tennis, golf is a sport that demonstrates status amongst Chinese. Currently, only about 2% of visitors from China play golf on a trip to Australia.5 However, according to the Australian Golf Industry Council, demand from this market has grown by 73% in the five years to 2014. Further, whilst only accounting for 9% of total golf visitor nights, the Chinese market accounts for 17% of total golf visitor spending. Yet Golf Australia seems to have so far dropped the ball (excuse the pun), with no Chinese language features on the Emirates Australian Open website and little evidence that they are trying to attract this market.

While other sports such as AFL are having a crack at attracting the Chinese market, it seems unlikely that Chinese tourists will be coming to Australia any time soon to watch a footy game or cricket match. However, tourism and hospitality operators who can incorporate running, tennis, soccer or golf into their packages are set to win big as Chinese look to not only travel, but also maintain healthy and active lifestyles.

Want to target Chinese tourists coming to Australia for sports events? Contact China Ready Now today for a free consultation!

* My time for the Gold Coast half marathon was 1 hour, 26 minutes, 3 seconds. Catch me if you can!


  1. Chinese tourists will touch down on the Coast en masse for the Gold Coast Marathon, Gold Coast Bulletin, 2 July 2016,
  2. Realizing Xi Jinping’s Soccer Dream, Wall Street Journal, 19 May 2016.
  3. Red Card 2016: China Digital Football Index, Mailman Group, 2016.
  4. China awaits inspiration from its next big tennis star, Financial Times, 24 June 2016.
  5. The Value of Golf Tourism to Australia, Australian Golf Industry Council, September 2014.

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