A growing number of Chinese fall for the island’s charms
Several Chinese celebrities are moving quietly in the forest. They whistle, with peeled bananas in hand, until suddenly a cute lemur appears from a tree and grabs a banana for a bite. More lemurs approach, eager for their snacks.
The scene is Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, Madagascar. It’s a part of the ongoing reality show Our Laws produced by Anhui Satellite TV, featuring the adventures of seven Chinese celebrities, including Nicholas Wu and Li Yapeng, in Madagascar and Ecuador.
The recent episodes showcased Madagascar’s rich biodiversity and unique landscape, which appeal to Chinese tourists. They can get a visa on arrival in the country.
“Many tourists want to see Madagascar’s flora and fauna, about 90 percent of which can’t be found elsewhere in the world,” says Lan Piaoxue, sales manager for China at the travel agency Madagascar Decouverte.
About 10,000 Chinese visited the country last year, and more than 4,000 are travelers, according to Lan.
She says the reality show vividly displays Madagascar’s unique attractions. The agency offers the show’s itineraries and some are suitable for parents traveling with children during the summer vocation. Local flora and fauna experts are on hand to share their insights, and visitors can also experience island life, such as watching whales.
“When you set up your camp in the forest and watch the stars in the sky, you forget all your tiredness from hiking and immerse yourself into the precious scenery. It’s a land of idyllic beauty: You live on the mountains and listen to the murmur of the running water and wind,” says Liu Yun, 50, an office worker from Beijing. She and her friends hiked for three days in Andringitra National Park and finally reached the mountain peak.
Last year, Liu traveled to the Madagascar for 14 days and visited five well-known national parks. Public transport is not so convenient, so she rented a car, hired a driver, and asked a local agency to design part of her itinerary.
During her journey, Liu was amazed by the huge trunks and cork like bark of baobab trees, the colorful chameleons, and fascinating terrain such as limestone formations with magnificent rocky spires.
Madagascar’s dry season lasts from the end of April to early October, according to Lan. The best time to watch humpback whales is from around June to September, and it’s a spectacular sight when they come straight out of the water.
“The best time to watch birds is from September to November,” Lan says, adding that there are few Chinese guides for bird-watching, so it’s best to make arrangements early.
Lan says the average cost of a seven- or eight-day itinerary, including airfare, is between 15,000 and 20,000 yuan ($2,989) per person. Amajority of their customers are in their 40s and 50s, and they often travel with families or friends. Many come for photography and outdoor explorations.
There is no direct flight but Air Madagascar plans to reopen its flights between Guangzhou and the country’s capital Antananarivo not before November. The flights will have a stopover at Reunion island. It’s about two hours from the Port Louis airport in Mauritius to Antananarivo. That makes a combined itinerary easy for those who would like to stay in Mauritius for three or four days and then fly to Madagascar.
“The common thing among Chinese travelers is that they love taking photos and some are professionals. In such a picturesque world, even a greenhorn can get excellent pictures.”
Lan says it’s best to be prepared with carsickness pills, sunblock and long-sleeve shirts and trousers that will shield visitors from mosquitoes. Tourists usually like to carry gifts for local impoverished kids: Good choices include candies and stationery items such as notebooks and pens.
“The country’s unique natural resources make it a perfect place for outdoor sports such as paragliding, windsurfing and diving. Hiking, rock-climbing and spelunking are also popular, and you can choose from several classic hiking trails in national parks,” says Tokiaritefy Rabeson, director general of tourism for Madagascar.
He says the country’s more than 5,000-kilometer coastline offers great potential for resorts.
The tourism ministry is making preparations for the expanding Chinese market, he says. For example, it is cooperating with the Confucius Institute to encourage local residents to learn Chinese. There is also training available for potential tour guides who can speak Chinese.
“Chinese tourists will love our cuisine, which is a mixture of Indonesian, Malaysian and Chinese. Ingredients are organic because local farmers don’t have the habit of using fertilizers,” he says.
Victor Sikonina, Madagascar’s ambassador to China, says city dwellers can enjoy the beauty of forests, away from urban hustle-and-bustle. There are more than 40 national parks to better preserve the country’s unique biodiversity and develop sustainable ecotourism.
“Tourism cooperation and interaction is an important part of China-Africa Cooperation,” says the ambassador, whose Chinese father moved from Guangdong to Madagascar to work.
He says tourism is the best way to strengthen ties between people of the two countries and quoted an old Chinese saying: “It is better to travel 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 books.
“Our friendship can be dated back to the early 20th century, when Chinese settled on the island.”
Madagascar’s rich biodiversity and unique landscape, such as its clean water, lemurs, baobab trees and limestone formations with magnificent rocky spires, appeal to Chinese tourists.