Chinese Takeaway Geoffrey Kent, founder of Abercrombie & Kent, has started offering luxury holidays for Chinese millionaires. What does the world beyond the wall hold, Josh Spero asks
Geoffrey Kent, founder of Abercrombie & Kent, has started offering luxury holidays for Chinese millionaires. What does the world beyond the wall hold, Josh Spero asks
Geoffrey Kent has never been deterred by walls, Great or otherwise. When he first went to China in 1979, Mao was not long dead yet Kent was raring to expand Abercrombie & Kent – a defiantly luxurious, capitalist enterprise – into the People's Republic. He settled for opening an office in Hong Kong in 1982 and started bringing people into China.
Now, that wall keeping people out can also be seen as a wall keeping people in, and Geoffrey Kent has once again decided to ignore it, this time by taking Chinese millionaires on international tours. With over half a million Chinese dollar millionaires and growing, according to the 2011 World Wealth Report, there is an opportunity here.
'Two years ago I started to focus on getting in and understanding the outbound market,' which wasn't easy because of a lack of good distribution channels: 'They don't have travel agents. They like to keep their wealth very quiet. They don't mix in big social gatherings.' So he did what he'd done before, when he started the business by jumping on a plane from his home of Kenya to Texas: he went where the wealthy were and introduced himself.
He found that their expectations were limited: shopping trips to London, Paris, Milan, Rome with personal opening of the stores, French vineyards, furniture buying – 'everything European'. (The difficulties even wealthy Chinese have with getting a UK visa is 'an insult', says Kent.) So where else would he take a group of Chinese billionaires but Istanbul and Kenya? 'Everyone said they'll never do that,' but they touched down in Istanbul in their private jet, 'loved being on the Bosphorus' and took off for Nairobi afterwards, with Kent himself helping to guide.
'We went hot air ballooning, took a safari through the Masai Mara. They saw cheetahs, rhinos, elephants, buffalo. They were amazed by the hippos.' Kent went with them himself but had also prepared the ground by moving a Chinese guide to Africa two years ago so she could accustom herself to the region, instead of having a Sinophone who knew nothing about Africa.
A Bush dinner at the Sanctuary Olonana in Kenya
So what are the requirements of Chinese abroad? Language is the main barrier, says Kent, hence the immersed guide, and then food. In a wonderful New Yorker article on regular Chinese tourists in Europe, it didn't matter where they were, they always wanted Chinese food – or at least were always only offered Chinese food. Kent says they ate what was provided with aplomb – but always wanted noodles afterwards.
One of the highlights was an incongruous-sounding breakfast 'in the middle of nowhere. We had champagne. Everything was served on fine bone china. There was this juxtaposition of the ballooning and seeing the animals then sitting down to breakfast with the china with Masai warriors around you.'
'This is just the start,' Kent says. Add to this seam of tourism the new concierge division opening in the first quarter of next year and luxury lodges built in China for internal and foreign tourists (also opening early 2012), and it seems that Kent is broadening the cracks in the Great Wall every day.
The new Abercrombie & Kent Specialist Journey catalogue has arrived, trailing Geoffrey Kent's vision in glorious technicolour. Each trip is categorised – 'expert led', 'pioneering', 'solo' – but only one gets an X for Extreme: The South Pole – Conquering the Final Degree. Priced appropriately (£36,775 per person), you start in Chile and only get chillier. The aim is to reach geographical South Pole, 90 degrees latitude, after eleven days' trekking, six to ten miles a day. There is not even a sunset to indicate when to stop your strides.
They say you can catch a cold going from the warm to the freezing, in which case the catalogue is likely to lead to many an ague: on one page, a solo tour of Egypt, including a boat tour down the Nile; on the next, adventures in the Norwegian Arctic, twitching at the unique bird species and avoiding the polar bears' reach; on the next yet, a train journey into the Russian Arctic Circle, where those legendary names like Arkangel come to life.
Perhaps the cutest of these adventures is the chance to catch the lemurs of Madagascar before the BBC turns them into an adorable six-part series.