Imagine digging a hole from China’s northwestern city of Xi’an all the way through earth. Where would you end up?
The answer is Santiago, the capital city of Chile.
Though it’s about as far as one can get from China, Chile has generated a buzz across the Pacific as Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to pay his state visit to the Latin American country.
It was the first South American country to establish diplomatic ties with China, and Chile now hopes to strengthen its tourism industry by drawing affluent Chinese travelers.
“We sincerely invite Chinese tourists to visit Chile,” said Javiera Montes, undersecretary of Ministry of Economy, Development and Tourism in Chile.
She made the remarks while giving a presentation on Chile’s tourist attractions in mid-November in Shanghai. It was the first such event organized by the Chilean government in China.
“We have the Andes and deserts. We also have over twenty thousand glaciers,” she said. “Twenty percent of our territory is nature reserves. I believe all Chinese people can find what they love in Chile.”
Chilean officials hope President Xi’s trip will increase awareness of Chile’s diverse natural beauty.
“I’ve lived in China for three years. Chinese tourists have shown a growing appetite for remote, exotic places in recent years. I believe many of them would be very interested in going on an adventure in Chile,” said Cesar Suarez, trade commissioner of Chile in Shanghai.
The long, narrow country between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean is a land of contrasts.
A string of volcanoes and lakes dot its southern regions, while in the north there is the arid Atacama Desert, selected as one of the 10 must-see regions for 2015 by Lonely Planet. It is also rich in copper, a major export for Chile.
Wu Yuanfeng, a businessman who often travels between Chile and China, recalled how stunned he was when he saw the sunset fall over the Atacama Desert.
“The sunset lasted really long, surrounded by a splendid evening glow…The Atacama Desert is the world’s driest desert. Its sand is the purest,” he said.
Yet for many Chinese visitors, the mysterious giant statues on Easter Island are all they know about the South American country.
About 11,000 Chinese visited Chile in 2014, up from just 6,000 in 2008, according to official data from Chilean tourism authorities.
The increase is striking, but still relatively tiny considering the fact that Chinese citizens made more than 100 million overseas trips the same year.
To attract more Chinese visitors, Chile now waives visa application fees for Chinese tourists, and those who hold visas for the United States or Canada that are valid for more than six months can enjoy visa-free access to the country.
With the loosening of visa requirements, Chile expects to see a 40-percent increase in the number of Chinese tourists every year.
MORE THAN TOURISM
To the Chilean government, the arrival of Chinese visitors means much more than higher tourism revenue.
China and Chile have maintained a close trade relationship over the past decade.
In 2005, Chile became the first state in Latin America to sign a free trade agreement with China. Since then, the bilateral trade volume has grown four-fold in ten years. China is now Chile’s biggest trade partner.
While copper has always been Chile’s main raw material export, its non-copper exports have been on the rise, accounting for one-fifth of the country’s total exports to China since 2014.
Chile was the top supplier of fresh cranberries and cherries to China last year, and 77 percent of China’s whole salmon and fresh plum imports come from Chile.
Beef, lamb and wine imports are also gaining popularity.
Rapid economic development in China over the past decades has created a strong middle class that isn’t afraid to spend on food, fashion, and travel.
“Tourism is a good way to promote trade,” said Suarez. “So this time we decided to combine both.”
Chinese gourmets love trying out authentic local food during a journey abroad. When they return home, they often become voluntary spokespersons for the local treats, so more visitors means more business opportunities.
“The best way to experience the world is to share food and wine with friends,” Suarez said. “I believe President Xi’s visit will not only strengthen bilateral ties, but also push mutual trade to a new level.”