Britain needs to take Chinese lessons

IT is quite fashionable to be bearish on China these days. Few think the Asian superpower will be able to brush off the Eurozone woes, inflation is sky high and its housing market bubble is about to go pop. I’ve noticed a certain smugness in those who predict pain for the Chinese, as though it will somehow staunch the huge flow of power from west to east.

But make no mistake: America and Europe’s reign as Kings of the World is fast coming to an end. The IMF predicts that China will overtake the US as the largest global economy in 2016, an event that would end up dominating the legacy of whoever wins this year’s presidential race.

Few doubt that China’s economic expansion will slow in 2012, but it is all relative. Growth of around seven per cent might be less than the nine per cent pencilled in for 2011, but it is still significantly better than the grim outlook for Europe or the slightly more positive picture in the US.

There is still plenty of proof that China is hot. Yesterday we learned that gambling revenues in Macau jumped by 42 per cent last year to $33.47bn, making it five times larger than Las Vegas, and that Temasek is launching a new $2.5bn fund to invest in the region.

So what part is Britain playing in the Chinese growth story? Last summer, the Prime Minister trumpeted trade deals worth £1.4bn as proof the UK wasn’t missing out, but we still lag behind our peers. According to the World Trade Organisation, Germany sold $71bn of merchandise to China in 2010, accounting for 5.6 per cent of exports, while the UK sold just $11.4bn, accounting for 2.8 per cent.

Of course, Germany has long been better at exports than us. As a nation of shopkeepers, restaurateurs and hoteliers, you’d expect us to be capitalising on the huge growth in Chinese tourism instead – but you’d be wrong. According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, the Chinese spent $54.9bn on tourism in 2010, a fourfold increase over the previous decade. The UK’s share of the pie was a paltry 0.4 per cent.

In a list of our closest rivals, which ignores countries like the Bahamas and Greece, Britain also performs abysmally. Among our eight nearest competitors, our share of outbound Chinese visits fell from five per cent in 2005 to three per cent in 2010. We lost out to France, which had a 30 per cent share in 2010; the US (20 per cent); and Switzerland (seven per cent).

Even if our market share stays the same, we should in theory benefit from more Chinese tourism over the next decade. Oxford Economics reckons the number of visitors to Britain could jump by almost two thirds to 290,000 by 2020. But this assumes London solves its crippling airport capacity problem, which is already stopping people from visiting. Although the overall number of Chinese tourists has rocketed over the past five years, airline seat capacity from the country’s airports to the UK has remained stable at 40,000 per annum.

The Tories have backed themselves into a corner with their idiotic, Nimby-ish opposition to more runways at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted. Now they need to find an alternative solution urgently, or forego the billions of pounds that Chinese tourists could soon be spending here.

Rather than standing on the sidelines, rubbing our hands with glee at any sign of a slowdown in China, Britain needs to work out how to cash in on the boom.

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• Allister Heath is away