The success of Chinese tennis superstar Li Na in Australia has started a boom in Asian visitors that could be “more valuable than Oprah” for tourism.
Australian Open officials confirmed yesterday that fifth seed Li has been the driving force behind a 30 per cent rise in ticket sales to China for this year’s event.
She has also played a significant role in a 400 per cent rise in visitors from the Asia-Pacific since 2004. Li made a historic first grand slam final appearance by a Chinese player at the Australian Open last year, generating a frenzy in her home country, before going on to win the French Open.
She has continued her red-hot form in 2012, making the final of last week’s Apia International in Sydney, in a field featuring nine of the world’s top 10 players, and winning her Australian Open first-round match yesterday.
Tourism and Transport Forum boss John Lee said the spike in Chinese visitors coming to watch Li in Australia this year was already benefiting tourism.
“The Chinese fans are not only visiting Melbourne, they will visit Sydney, the Barrier Reef and Uluru,” he said.
The bubbly Li was now among the biggest factors influencing Chinese tourism to Australia.
“She’s made a successful start to 2012 and if that continues Li could be more valuable to Australian tourism than Oprah. Li is one of the most recognised people in China and she spends a considerable amount of time in Australia every year,” he said.
Tennis Australia heavily promoted the tournament in China last year, with local celebrities like the country’s Miss Universe entrant Luo Zilin and pop star Li Xiaoyun acting as ambassadors and generating media coverage.
Mr Lee said this would help to reinforce what he dubs “the Li effect” – claiming she could even displace Kim Clijsters in the affections of Australians.
“Aussie Kim may be in the past now,” he said.
“When you look at our emerging relationship with China, it might soon become ‘Aussie Li’.
“About 53 million Chinese people left their country on a holiday last year.
“Of that, 500,000 came to Australia. That number could easily double within five years helped by the Li factor.”
Mr Lee said he was now praying for a Li victory.
“I don’t want to diss Sam Stosur, but I’ve got my fingers crossed Li could even go one step further than last year, for the free publicity it would give Australia.”
Tennis Australia CEO Steve Wood said last night Li’s success had driven interest in the tournament in Asia to an all time high.
“We see enormous growth potential through partnerships with major Chinese companies and government,” he said.
“For example, we’ve signed a deal with Chinese company Erke, an organisation with 8,000 retail outlets in China, to launch an Australian Open tennis merchandise range.”