Chinese tourists take pictures at Australia's University of Sydney, April 2018. Photo: Lachlan Colquhoun
Chinese tourists take pictures at Australia's University of Sydney, April 2018. Photo: Lachlan Colquhoun

At the main gates of the University of Sydney, there is a regular rumble of group photographs and selfies. Bemused students wander past, politely stepping out of the way so they don’t photo bomb the picturesque moment.

It is a warm day, so to add to the confusion and chaos almost everyone in the photographic scrum is holding an umbrella to protect themselves from the glaring sun.

Off Parramatta Road, just opposite the university, a stretch of road has become a semi-permanent depot for parked tourist buses. Drivers play on their phones and smoke cigarettes as they wait for the tour groups to return.

To the locals, it seems unusual that growing numbers of Chinese tourists are putting the University of Sydney on their tour itineraries.

The Opera House and Harbor Bridge are the main attractions, of course, but over the last year the university has become another major drawcard.

On further analysis, the interest seems logical as the outgrowth of two significant and rising trends: the exponential growth of Chinese tourists to Australia, and the increasingly close connections between the university and China, both in terms of students and research cooperation.

In terms of architecture, the university is not what one might expect in a new world country like Australia. The original buildings, including many residential colleges, are crafted in a Neo-Gothic style which speaks to Australia’s colonial links to England.

Australia-University of Sydney-Juliet Balconey-2013-Wikimedia Commons
The University of Sydney’s sandstone Juliet Balcony. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For many young people, it’s like a visit to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter fantasy novels, which are also immensely popular in China.

Outside the gates, a couple from Shanghai explain their interest. “It is such beautiful architecture,” says Mr Han. “Very English looking. And there is the courtyard inside which is like Oxford or Cambridge.”

He is referring to the sandstone cloisters, almost 170 years old, which are at the heart of the university and are its main architectural icon.

In the cloisters, other groups of tourists are busy taking photographs. Although they are less than two centuries old, they are convincing 19th century reproductions of a style which dates back to the Middle Ages.

The Chinese word, according to some Chinese, is “gulao,” which is all about having respect for heritage, and when you consider this the crowds are justified.

Few cultures have more heritage than China, so it is understandable that Chinese tourists should find the heritage of other nations interesting – especially one they are only just getting to know.

To better understand the growing phenomenon linking Australia’s oldest university to China, some statistics are useful.

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Chinese tourists take pictures at the University of Australia, April 2018. Picture: Lachlan Colquhoun

For the calendar year 2017, Australia welcomed just over 1.3 million Chinese visitors and their spending exceeded A$10 billion (US$7.8 billion) for the first time, an increase of 13% on 2016’s figure.

Chinese tourists now represent the country’s second largest visitor group, just marginally behind neighboring New Zealanders It is only a matter of time before they become the biggest.

The A$10 billion spent by Chinese visitors is around 25% of the total amount spent by the eight million international visitors to Australia each year, so as a group they are big spenders.

Destination NSW, a government agency in Sydney’s state, has conducted analysis specifically of Chinese tourists to New South Wales and found that 60% travel on group tours, while 40% are what are referred to as “free Independent travelers.”

Independent travelers spend longer in the state, at an average of 6.6 nights, and spend more at A$3,760 (US$2,920) each, than group travelers.

Around 70% of this independent group have visited Australia before and two-thirds of them are under 45 years old. Approximately 9% of Chinese visitors to NSW are “education” travelers, a bigger group than the 8% who come for business.

Sydney University has doubled the number of international students in the last four years to 26,000, delivering around A$752 million (US$584 million) in annual fees, providing 16% of the institution’s funding. The majority of these international students are from China.

Chinese students pose during a graduation photo shoot at Curtin University in Bentley, Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP
Chinese students pose during a graduation photo shoot at Curtin University in Bentley, Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP

All of this has not come without controversy. There is rising criticism that the commercialization of Australian universities is compromising academic standards, while a columnist in a Chinese state-run newspaper recently warned that perceived ill-treatment of Chinese students will soon backfire.

“I sincerely advise Australian universities to pay more attention to their quality of education and stop treating Chinese students as a cash machine,” wrote Global Times columnist Lilly Wang.

“Some of them are spending their parents’ lifesavings to come to Australia. Are you providing enough knowledge and opportunities in return?”

Meanwhile, a minor scandal recently broke out over anti-Chinese graffiti on a toilet wall on Sydney University’s campus, while Chinese students have secretly filmed classes where professors have contradicted China’s political stance on sensitive national issues like Taiwan.

There was also a recent furor over Chinese research collaborations with Australian Universities, with the government set to introduce foreign interference laws described as “Sinophobic blatherings” by Sydney’s vice chancellor Michael Spence.

Perhaps this is what can be expected when change comes so rapidly. On many levels, Australia’s relationship with China has gone from zero to 100 in a matter of decades.

Back at Sydney University’s cloisters, another group of young Chinese tourists has arrived to admire the sandstone columns, probably unaware of the deeper context behind their presence.

Engaged in conversation, a 20-something girl from Guangzhou says she is enchanted by the visit. “This is so special, this place,” she said. “I would so much like to come here and study here one day.”