Part 1: Language Barriers

Here’s the conundrum of many a regional Australian destination manager and tourism operator:

“We’re eager to tap into the growing China visitor market, but we can’t yet tick off all the boxes we’re being told are important by China-ready experts.”

This becomes a Catch-22 situation, as highlighted to me in recent conversations with clients and tourism operators ready to jump on the China-ready train, but cautious of over-investing in this market at such an early stage.

“We wanted to hire a Chinese-speaking receptionist, but after failing to find any suitable local talent we decided the expense of recruiting someone from the city wasn’t justifiable until we start receiving more guests from China. Yet we were told having a bilingual staff member is a requisite if we want to attract the China market. What should we do?”

I don’t consider myself to be Australia’s pre-eminent China-ready expert. I do, however, have a good intercultural understanding of why Chinese people think and behave the way they do. And from my perspective, some of the China-ready tips circulating in the tourism industry are quite off the mark when provided without sufficient cultural context. A fundamental success factor in becoming China-ready is gaining an understanding of the underlying needs, wants, behaviours and preferences of visitors from China.

So, I’ve decided to call out some of these China-ready myths through a series of blog posts focusing on the following five topics:

  • Language barriers
  • Food preferences
  • Shopping
  • International flight connections
  • Nature and adventure-based experiences

Let’s start with the China-ready myth around overcoming language barriers.

The myth.

If you want your tourist destination or tourism business to be China-friendly, you really should employ Mandarin-speaking staff to make Chinese visitors feel welcome and to overcome language barriers.

The reality.

Firstly, there are some truths to this myth. According to Tourism Research Australia, Chinese visitors do have a significant level of dissatisfaction with the availability of Chinese language services (2014 TRA Chinese Satisfaction Survey). Furthermore, many of the hotel general managers and tourism operators I speak with find it invaluable having Mandarin-speaking team members on their staff to service guests from China.

However, here are some other cultural insights to take into consideration:

Employing bilingual staff

Visitors from China would almost always appreciate being able to converse in their native tongue. In reality, it isn’t necessarily easy to recruit Mandarin-speaking hospitality staff, especially in regional destinations. Furthermore, the scale of your business (or the current numbers of Chinese-national travellers to your destination) might not justify employing Chinese-speaking hospitality professionals. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean you can’t address the challenge of language barriers. And certainly, there are plenty of other opportunities to create a welcoming experience for visitors from China. I will elaborate on these opportunities further down in Section 3 of this post.

Face-saving and status

Many visitors from China (especially younger travellers) with limited English language skills prefer to speak with, and be served by, native-English speakers.

An Australian resort worker recently shared with me how she struggled to understand her Chinese guest and tried to refer him to a Chinese-speaking colleague. However, her guest insisted on speaking only with her because “your English is good”.

My understanding of this situation is that despite the guest’s limited English language skills, he was conscious of saving face by insisting on speaking with a native English speaker. Face-saving is a significant motivator behind many behaviours in Chinese culture. Another strong motivator in Chinese culture is status. In this case, the Chinese guest may have felt an elevated status associated with being served by an Australian (looking) member of staff.

Wayfinding signage

If you remember the heyday of the inbound tourism boom from Japan, you’ll most likely recall the backlash against streetscapes of Japanese-language signage in destinations such as Cairns and the Gold Coast. Locals didn’t like it. Other international visitors didn’t like it. And some Japanese visitors even indicated they felt they weren’t being offered a real local experience.

Nevertheless, the reality is that wayfinding is a practical need for non-English speaking visitors. We’re now seeing this in the growing FIT (Free and Independent Traveller) market from China. A high proportion of FIT visitors from China have limited conversational English-language skills. They may find word-based signage confusing, even though they can probably read English.

For example, imagine how difficult it would be for a first-time visitor from China to mentally translate and understand word-based signs such as “Designated Parking”, “Self-Service” or “Out-of-Order”. The good news is that there are now plenty of alternatives to plastering Chinese-language signs on every street corner as a solution to overcoming language barriers. Section 3 below touches on some of these alternatives.

Digital natives

Have you recently been overseas and didn’t speak the local language? Chances are, you used Google translate at some point. Well Chinese millennials (Australia’s primary target market from China) also rely on mobile translation apps when travelling internationally. Except they’re more likely to use WeChat over Google to translate between English and Chinese. Granted, it can be tricky getting an accurate translation from an app, but your Chinese millennial is more likely to whip out their mobile phone to check WeChat for a rough translation rather than looking for a Mandarin-speaking member of your staff. This is especially true in regional destinations and remote locations. Of course, if you do have bilingual staff, that’s a bonus. But it’s not the end of the world if you don’t, assuming you too are targeting the digital-savvy FIT Chinese millennial.

Try this instead.

If you have the budget and means to employ Mandarin-speaking staff, you’re one step ahead in demonstrating that your tourist destination or tourism business is welcoming and well-placed to receive visitors from China. However, if that’s not yet a viable option here are some other ways to achieve the same outcome:

1. Train staff on how to communicate with non-native English-speaking visitors.

Here are a few basic tips:

  • Speak slowly and clearly
  • Use shorter sentences rather than long descriptions
  • Avoid Aussie slang and choose words that are easily understood by people from non-English speaking backgrounds
  • Write down key words and numbers while you’re providing information – this will minimise miscommunication resulting from differences in accents. Afterwards, hand your guest the notes to take away with them.

Even more important is recognising and understanding the nuances of Chinese culture that impact on the way Chinese people communicate. For example, the following cultural concepts are integral to Chinese expectations around communication and customer service:

  • Saving face and giving face
  • Diplomacy vs directness
  • Respect for hierarchy
  • Importance of reading between the lines

Some of these cultural concepts are explained in my earlier blog “4 Common Mistakes Aussies Make When Negotiating With Asian Businesses”. For example, in Australia being direct is generally more important than being diplomatic. Aussies prefer to “call a spade a spade” or “tell it like it is”. However, in many other cultures (including Chinese culture) the same level of directness would be perceived as being inappropriate, even rude. The Chinese cultural preference is for a softer, more diplomatic communication style. A polite response would be to diplomatically suggest to a Chinese visitor an alternative option rather than the more direct approach of saying something cannot be done or “is not possible”.

2. WeChat international translator.

Whilst you may not be able to convince your tourism industry colleagues to invest the time to learn conversational Chinese, there’s one solution that’s easily accessible to every hospitality professional with a smartphone: download the WeChat app.

Whenever you face a language barrier with your Chinese visitor, you can show them your WeChat app. They’ll quickly get the message that you’re inviting them to connect with you on the WeChat platform where you can both converse in your respective native languages, and let the app do the translating.

Here’s a 1-minute video showing how easy it is.

3. Publish a bilingual destination map.

Aside from being useful for providing directions, a bilingual map is helpful for Chinese visitors to recognise English-language signage, such as the name of a particular shop or attraction they may wish to visit. Why bilingual as opposed to a map with just Chinese writing? Because you want anyone in your hotel / Visitor Information Centre / restaurant etc to be able to read the map so they can point out specific locations and recommendations to your Chinese visitor.

4. Discreet Chinese-language signage.

Unless you’re a China-owned duty free shop, you probably don’t need a pillar-to-post neon sign in Chinese characters to make visitors from China feel welcome. A small and simple Chinese-language welcome sign in your shop-front window will do. Even more enticing is displaying a window sticker indicating that you accept UnionPay (the number one credit card in China) or other Chinese payment methods.

These small things make a big difference in making Chinese visitors feel welcome, especially if your destination has a critical mass of businesses all displaying these discreet signs.

5. Translated materials.

This includes not only brochures and other marketing collateral, but also menus and Chinese-language welcome packs.


Overcoming language barriers and conveying a genuine welcome to Chinese visitors is a priority for any tourist destination or tourism business that aims to attract the China market.

Although having Mandarin-speaking hospitality professionals is a bonus, there are other culturally-appropriate solutions that can be rolled out destination-wide or organisation-wide to achieve the same level of visitor satisfaction.

Rather than relying on a handful of Chinese-speaking staff to do the heavy lifting, I strongly believe a more effective way is for everyone involved in the service delivery ecosystem to have a better understanding of the underlying needs, wants, behaviours and preferences of our visitors from China.

I hope you find these culturally-appropriate solutions useful, and I’d love to hear what other initiatives you have taken to overcome languages barriers.

Craig Shim, Alphacrane Intercultural Specialists

China and Asia-ready programs for destination managers and tourism operators

Alphacrane provides culturally-informed tourism insights, strategies, workshops and coaching sessions on attracting and servicing visitors from China and other Asian source markets.

We also have an end-to-end Project Asia program tailored for local councils and tourism organisations to develop their tourism industry’s cultural capabilities in capitalising on China and other Asian market segments. Project Asia is a convergence of cultural awareness and tourism best-practice – a practical “how to” program designed for tourism operators.

If you’d like to discuss China-ready options for your tourist destination or tourism business, please contact us for a confidential chat via

Survey: How China-friendly is your tourist destination or tourism organisation?

For a limited time only, Alphacrane is offering a free and confidential assessment of how friendly your destination or tourism operation is from the perspective of visitors from China. Access your complimentary assessment by answering this short 3-minute survey before 31 April 2018.

Click here to take the survey.

Beyond China-Ready: Handling complaints and customer service challenges from (and about) hotel guests from China.

If your hotel is already successful in servicing guests from China, but is facing customer satisfaction challenges associated with this market, we’re well placed to help you out.  Alphacrane has developed a comprehensive set of resources specifically for hoteliers.  To arrange a confidential chat, please contact us (click here).