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January 3, 2010

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Harry paves the way for tourists

RESTAURATEUR Harry Sou is one of many millions of overseas Chinese promoting aspects of the Middle Kingdom's culture in foreign lands. Typically, he has established a successful chain of Chinese restaurants in his adopted city in regional Australia and raised his own mini Chinese dynasty.

But he's also a serial visitor to Shanghai, and other cities in China, trying to tap into the country's booming overseas tourism market.

He flies the flag with the help of Cathay Pacific and Qantas airlines and other tourism operators to attract tourists to see the Great Barrier Reef which is on the doorstep of the tropical north Australian city of Cairns where his business is based.

Sou has made a dozen visits to Shanghai and the Yangtze Delta region in the past five years as an ambassador to hike interest in his restaurant and region. He finds the Shanghainese very tough traders but believes the rewards are worth it.

His depth of commitment to attracting Chinese tourists has caused him to branch into publishing and he recently added a Korean language edition to his well-established Chinese-language Cairns Visitors' Guide which circulates in tourism agencies throughout China.

"We go there to actively support our region because we are Chinese, we speak Chinese and we publish a visitors' guide in Chinese," he said recently of his promotional forays.

World heritage

"The Great Barrier Reef is a very good brand as a world heritage listed area and, although Cairns is small, the Chinese appreciate it is very sophisticated. So, they don't mind traveling more than 24 hours to get there, to see the reef and world heritage rainforest, soak up Australian atmosphere and meet the people."

In some respects, he is preaching to the converted when asking Chinese to get interested in jumping on a plane to see the coral wonders where the iconic film "Finding Nemo" was based. Cairns is a major city in Queensland which in 2009 celebrated the 20th anniversary of its sister state relationship with Shanghai.

The route from China to Cairns has been trail-blazed over many years by former senior leaders, from Zhu Rongji, Jiang Zemin and Li Peng to current President Hu Jintao in 2003 and Premier Wen Jiabao in 2006. And special charter flights annually take in thousands of Chinese during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Sou operates four Cafe China restaurants in the tropical city, purveying cuisine that is essentially Cantonese tinged with influences of Sichuan and Beijing styles and sprinklings of Shanghai and northern China influences.?

He was born into a modest Hong Kong family and migrated to Australia at age 14 to support them. "It is very easy for a Chinese to get work in a kitchen in Australia doing pots and pans and peeling potatoes," he said.

"At the same time I had an opportunity to learn cooking so I became a Chinese chef in Melbourne and returned to Hong Kong for training. That's how I ended up in this industry.

"My actual qualifications are in old-fashioned computer programming and my specialty was writing interest rate programs for banks."

Sou speaks proudly about his Chinese countrymen travelers' commitment and resilience in the face of sometimes rough weather to see first-hand the natural beauty of a tropical region similar in climatic conditions to southern China's Hainan Island.

"They know this is almost a once-in-a-lifetime experience and will be extremely disappointed if the weather?stops them," he said of snorkeling, diving and fishing activities.

Late last year the power of the tropical region's allure was reflected in a brief but vast influx of senior government officials from Guangdong Province.

"They'd had a big meeting in Sydney and about 600 of them -- party secretaries, mayors and senior officials -- visited Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef on their way home," said Sou, who has been the prominent Chinese restaurateur in the city since 1992.

"There were so many of them. I had four mayors from Zhanjiang, Xiamen, Maoming and Zhuhai and their groups in different sections of my restaurant all at the same time -- it was a fantastic night. A lot were here for only 36 hours and they wanted to see everything so they hired helicopters to cut down their travel times."

Sou salivates at the potential of luring more visitors from the increasingly more mobile 50-60 million residents of Shanghai, Hangzhou, Wuxi and Nanjing areas.

"Obviously if we can get direct air services it will be more ideal," he lamented. At present the only direct flights are by Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong.

In the meantime, he will be a regular Shanghai visitor and as he signs on more tourists he will also conscript cuisine ideas for his restaurants from its rich variety of options.


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