Sydney's Vivid festival attracts Chinese tourist dollars

By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

  • Published
Sydney Opera House illuminated during the Vivid Festival in 2015Image source, Vivid Festival
Image caption,
Light displays have been set up around Sydney Harbour and the historic Rocks district

It began in 2009 as an idea to attract tourists to Sydney in winter. Now the Vivid light and music festival is attracting the much-coveted Chinese tourist dollar to Australia.

This week, Sharen Tan will visit Sydney's iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge with about 300 people in 12 Chinese tour groups.

But there is an addition to the usual city sightseeing route.

Sydney has been transformed into an orgy of lights - including control-your-own digital fireworks, artwork projected onto the walls of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and a laser-fountain water theatre with 30-metre coloured jets spurting into the sky.

Image source, Zohar Izenberg
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A laser-fountain display at Darling Harbour in Sydney presents a spectacular liquid-light show

Ms Tan, a manager at China Travel International in Guangdong, is part of a mass influx of foreign tourists and agents here for Vivid, an annual 18-day festival of light, music and ideas held from 22 May to 8 June.

"It is a fusion of classical architecture, art and technology - a very powerful expression of the beauty of Sydney," says Ms Tan, whose wards are charged roughly 15,000 yuan (A$3,091; $2,417)) for their Australian package tours.

Since it launched seven years ago, Vivid has taken Sydney by storm, becoming the largest festival of its kind in the world and one of Australia's most important events on the tourism calendar.

Last year, 1.4 million people attended Vivid, up 79% from the previous year, and it added an estimated A$41.3m to the New South Wales economy.

Visual spectacle

Traditionally, winter is a low tourist season in sun-kissed Sydney. But, according to the festival's organisers, local restaurants, cafes and bars report that their takings at festival time can increase anywhere from 100% to 500%.

It is "a real shot in the arm for the local tourism industry and it gets people off the couch and out into the city," says Sandra Chipchase, chief executive officer of Destination NSW, the government agency behind the festival.

Last year "an extra 900kg of ice cream from one outlet [alone] was sold on the first weekend", she says.

"It's like having 18 New Year's Eves in a row but without the alcohol; it's family friendly."

The festival is fast becoming a key weapon in the battle to attract much-coveted Chinese tourists to Australia. They are part of the newly prosperous middle-classes who are expected to number 670 million by 2020, with as many as 100 million expected to spend their disposable income on touring the world.

Image source, Vivid Festival
Image caption,
"Light Origami" is made of more than 320 Perspex shapes

At last year's festival, a third of the 30,000 visitors from overseas came from China and the number of Chinese tourists was up 35% on the previous year.

Instagram friendly

Crucially, the Vivid Light Walk, which this year features installations from light artists around the world, ranging from giant Siamese fighting fish to "Light Origami" and an enormous Geometric Eye, can be enjoyed as a visual spectacle without knowing any English.

For nature fans, BBC Earth has its own Life Story installation, located in Sydney's historic Rocks area, with a narration by Sir David Attenborough.

Ben Baxter, one of the festival's founding artists, recalls that when Vivid was first launched no one knew how big it would get.

Image source, JACK ATLEY
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The light display on the Sydney Opera House sails is a boon for amateur photographers
Image source, Vivid Festival
Image caption,
The festival invites lighting "creatives" from around the world to illuminate the sails

Mr Baxter says part of the festival's success is its unique mix of technological innovation, ideas and art.

"When Vivid started, the LED [lighting] revolution really [also] started to kick off. Although LEDs had been around for a while the capabilities of programming and what you could do increased," explains Mr Baxter.

The rise of social media and the advent of the smart phone mean visitors can now gawp at the scenery while posting their snaps instantaneously online. Last year, more than 95,000 images were flagged with the hashtag on Instagram.

To deal with the increased visitor numbers, 3,500 extra trains, ferries and buses will run during the festival, with all grid-connected lighting installations powered by renewable energy for the first time.

Vivid is actively courting Chinese tourists. In a trip to Shanghai last September, New South Wales Premier Mike Baird said China was integral to the state's goal of doubling visitor expenditure by 2020.

Image source, Vivid Festival
Image caption,
The festival has attracted interstate and overseas tourists as well as local residents

Vivid now promotes itself on the Chinese micro-blogs Sina Weibo and WeChat and has its own Chinese app.

The China Australia Millennial Project (CAMP), a new initiative bringing together 200 young Chinese and Australian innovators and leaders for a five-day workshop, is also being launched this year during Vivid Ideas.

'So much fun'

The festival "reinforces Sydney's position as the creative services hub of Australia, builds new collaborations and networks, [and] showcases our creativity," says Ms Chipchase.

But above all, "for the people who attend it is just so much fun", she says.

Ms Tan agrees.

"Vivid is more and more popular because it's a large international celebration," she says.

In the daytime, Sydney is ravishing. But when dusk descends and the installations light up the skyline, visitors will be "even more impressed", she says.