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Sizing Up The China Diving Market

Ask any training agency executive about the growth of diving, and he or she will likely mention the phenomenal growth of diving in China. We asked Edmund Yiu, owner of RAID China, and tech distributor Xtreme Deep Asia Limited, for a perspective on the Chinese diving market. How’s your Kung Fu?

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Ask any training agency executive about the growth of diving, and he or she will likely mention the phenomenal growth of diving in Asia, particularly in China. And everybody seems to be chasing it.

In fact, as this blog was being prepared there were two large rival diving exhibitions; one being held in Singapore, the other in Shanghai, both on the same weekend, which were locked in a ongoing battle for eyeballs, attendance, and, most importantly, exhibitors.

Ironically, Edmund Yiu, an accomplished technical diver with over 6000 dives and an instructor trainer who heads RAID China and tech equipment distributor Xtreme Deep Asia Limited, found it necessary to exhibit at both the ADEX and DRT shows, lest his companies concede market share to others.  InDepth caught up with Yiu at the last Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) show in Las Vegas to get a perspective on doing diving business in China. Here’s what the man had to say.

InDepth: I keep hearing that, from a global perspective, China is a hotbed of diving right now. Maybe you could explain if that is the case and what’s driving it.

Edmund Yiu: Of course, the world is always looking at China. It’s not just the diving industry; I think it’s the same as everything else as it’s really because there are a lot of consumers that have all of a sudden opened up, and there is certainly wealth involved. Everyone thinks there’s a lot of money to be made there.

Photo courtesy of Edmund Yiu.

Honestly, I am a little tired of hearing about the China market. In terms of opportunities, of course, there are plenty. But I don’t think China is as big of a gold mine as everybody thinks it is. It’s very tough to do business here in China. It’s hard to maintain profit margins and there are lot of competitors. Many are out to try to destroy each other instead of working together to protect the business, and there are price wars, misinformation, and in some cases, a total disregard of intellectual property. These things threaten to kill the market faster than anyone can benefit from it.

Isn’t diving relatively new in China?

The diving industry has only been into China for a little more than 10 years. However, it really only just got started about six years ago. So, you will find very few people who has actually dived longer than six years; most have dived less than three. In terms of age groups, you will not find many older people  that dive or have been certified to dive. Everybody is pretty young. I would say 20 to 40 years old, in that range. Demographically, it’s very attractive because there’s a huge population. Market penetration is just at the beginning, and there’s a lot of potential. And people there certainly have money to spend because they have been oppressed for so long and hungry for everything, so they go out trying to buy everything. Not just diving.

So the industry is seeing a lot of growth?

The major agencies are all looking to grow, so over the past few years they have expanded very quickly. There are a lot of course directors and instructors who, in many cases, have barely enough dives or real experience to become one.

It becomes very evident when we do crossovers. We have to teach some of the instructors a lot of the basic diving skills again. Even if they are course directors. There are instructors with just a few years of diving and yet, they are looked up to as idols. But if you compare them to people around the world who have been diving quite a while longer, they really have no idea what the outside [diving] world is like.

Is it true that most of the business is done online?

In China, everybody buys everything online. This is where the majority of purchases come through without any geographical boundaries, so all the dive shops sell countrywide. Surely they will have some locally-based customers, but when I give them stuff to sell, they sell it everywhere, the whole country.

The trouble is when you are selling stuff online, price competition is all there is. So, customers always look around and find the lowest price. As a result, margins are shrinking and it just kills the market for us.

So where do divers go to get a gas fill?

Well, most people in China aren’t in the habit of buying their own tanks and that’s how it is. Everybody uses the tanks provided by dive shops. Nobody really owns tanks unless they are a professional.

What about nitrox?

No, most dive shops don’t offer nitrox. Having and maintaining a nitrox filling facility would be a nightmare here because it’s very hard to get oxygen in China. Compressed gas and other things all heavily regulated. Even knives are heavily regulated. The Chinese government is very paranoid about terrorists. You cannot even buy gasoline unless you’re driving a car to fill it up.  

Is there good local diving?

That’s another thing about diving in China, there is really no good place to dive. There is only confined water like pools, which everybody uses for training. For open water dives, most people travel to Southeast Asia. The countries that have benefited the most from Chinese dive travel are probably the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, the Maldives, and Malaysia. There are also many dive shops that are being opened or bought by Chinese at these destinations. There are lakes and of course the sea in certain parts of China, but they are cold, have bad visibility, and are not very diveable.

Photo courtesy of Edmund Yiu.

Any shipwrecks or caves?

There are plenty of shipwrecks, given thousands of years of Chinese history, but they usually sank into the mud; most of the coastal areas are very muddy and often have zero visibility. Just how fun can that be?  It may be worth it for archaeology and historical study purposes. But certainly not for recreational diving.

We also have some caves in the western part of China, which are seasonal, tend to be deep, and have minimal facilities. These are not the places that most people want to go —only very experienced “tech” divers. Most people want to go diving in tropical water and see corals and fishes. So, everyone goes on trips. If you go to any diving destinations  in Asia and they’re all very crowded with Chinese tourist divers.

How do people there learn about diving? Is information readily available?

One of the problems we have is that people are not able to get good complete information. In China, we have limited information and are not able to easily get access to the outside world because the Internet is blocked. First of all, if you do a search on diving, a lot of the information is in English, but the majority of Chinese don’t speak English. The second thing is that most people don’t have any information about what the outside world is like. So it’s very easy to fall into the trap and idolize and follow the diving “hotshots” or “superstars” so to speak.

The problem is that everyone in the industry wants to be the star, and if they don’t have the knowledge, they just make it up. That’s very typical of Chinese mentality. They will just say anything. And people will believe it. They won’t have any basis to verify it.

It sounds like there isn’t a lot of cooperation within the diving industry.

One of the things that is happening here in China is, how should I put it, factionalism. Basically, there are the existing agencies and so many new agencies and pseudo-agencies in China right now because they all see it as a money-making business and want a piece of the pie. PADI has the biggest market share in China, because they have been going at it for about 12 years, marketing wise, and spending a lot of money building it; however, most other agencies are very small.

Photo courtesy of Edmund Yiu.

Factionalism?

What I mean by factionalism is that all the small agencies claiming they are the best and everybody else is no good, and they never cooperate with each other. It’s like Chinese Kung Fu: there are all these different factions, they have different styles, and they fight each other all the time.  The Chinese mentality is that your competitor is the enemy and everybody wants to kill the competitor. That’s what business is like there. It is cutthroat. Everyone is trying to kill each other instead of trying to help each other build an industry.

It sounds like a race to the bottom?

Whether it’s recreational open water or technical rebreather training, the problem is that everyone wants to grow [the business] really fast, because that’s how it is in China. They want to do everything quickly, and you can only do that to a certain degree in some industries, but you can’t do that very well in diving. You can only push it so much.

The whole point I think is that we enjoy diving, and we want people to learn it properly so they can enjoy their diving too. So that’s why we’d rather take the time and focus on quality. We believe it’s important to maintain our standards.

So, as much as I want us to grow, we don’t like to just sign everybody off because that’s what everybody else is doing. It’s the easiest and quickest way to make money. But, for me, making money is secondary because we are educators and genuine divers.

You told me at the DEMA, that RAID is trying to “do it right,” in bringing diving to China. What did you mean by that?  I’m sure you know that DIR i.e. “doing it right,” was the original name for Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) standards. So RAID also trains new divers to wear a backplate, wing, and long hose?

WE won’t go as far as GUE in term of the “DIR” standard. Yes, we do promote backplate and wings, and we promote long hoses for new divers because it just naturally goes well with our standards and philosophy. It is safer and more efficient underwater. It actually feels more natural when you are streamlined so it’s not just about being more technical. We believe the safest way is probably the best way and it also makes them a better diver.  It’s no more difficult than learning the traditional way kneeling on the bottom to do drills wearing a buoyancy jacket and a heavy weight belt. Instead we spend time and effort teaching divers correctly, i.e. properly weighted and neutrally buoyant, which means our costs are higher, and accordingly, we charge a little bit more. So we don’t need to get involved in price wars.

You’re talking buoyancy and trim!

Yes. To be able to hover horizontally, motionless, and have a proper weighting and trim is essential for all divers, not just technical divers. Open water divers appreciate it. It gives them more confidence. It’s also safer and better for the environment.

Header Image: courtesy of Edmund Yiu.


Cave

No Direction Home: A Slovenia Cave Diving Adventure

Suffering from Covid lockdown, young, poetic Italian explorer, instructor, and gear-maker, Andrea Murdock Alpini, decided to take social distancing to the max! He packed his specially designed cave-van and set out on a three-week solo road trip to dive the water-filled caves lying beneath the Slovenian soil. His report and must-see video log, dubbed, “No Direction Home”—an homage to Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan docu—will likely satisfy those deeper urges for adventure. Did I mention the killer soundtrack? Kids don’t try this at home!

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Text: Andrea Murdock Alpini

Photo & Video: Andrea Murdock Alpini

Ecco la storia originale così com’è stata scritta in italiano

Author’s note: I do not encourage other divers to conduct solo diving. The trip and the dives described in this article were conducted after significant training and experience.

Ed.Note: Global Underwater Explorers does not sanction solo diving.

Freedom!

That was the feeling I had last June 2020 when I left my home to begin a journey alone. Caves, abandoned mines, alpine lakes, and a few wrecks—that was my plan for a great adventure.  

The first COVID-19 lockdown had been in place for a couple of weeks, and I was afraid of going out and meeting people. Social distancing left an open wound. I loaded my wreck-van with plenty of stuff to survive alone for a long month traveling amongst rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests, and I was ready to practice scuba diving. 

At that time, tourist travel was impossible in Italy or abroad—anywhere  in Europe—because the coronavirus had locked the borders. I asked an editor in chief from a magazine—one whom I am used to sending articles to—to prepare a couple of official invitation letters for customs. For my trip, I converted my wreck van into a cave van. It was fully equipped with a 300-bar air compressor, helium, oxygen, deco cylinders, twinsets of different sizes, gas booster, fins, mountain boots, tent, camp burner, and brand-new dry suits, as well as thermal underwear to be tested for my company PHY Diving Equipment. 

I remember the day well. I was thrilled as I crossed the border between Italy and Slovenia. I had been restricted to nothing but a 200 m/650 ft walk from my house because of the pandemic restrictions, but with an eight-hour drive, I was free to enjoy walking into wild nature all alone.

The mental switch was awesome, and unexpected. I did make just one phone call from abroad. I talked to an incredible Russian who was the first guy I met in a small rural village in Slovenia. He had emigrated some years ago, and now he welcomed travelers by sharing his farmstead. 

However, once I arrived on site, I was not very welcomed by  the weather; instead, I was met by heavy rain. After the storm passed, I went out walking and filming with my phone. I had decided to record all of the trip. As luck would have it,  the rain returned again, and it never left me for the entire duration of my trip (almost a month).

My tour was articulated throughout Slovenia, Garda Lake (Italy), Austria, and South Tirol’s Alps, Tuscany’s caves, and finally I reached the central part of Italy—Appenini mountains and their peaks. I planned to reach two mines, but heavy rains stopped my dream. Excluding Slovenia, where I slept in a traditional bed, I passed all my time living in my tent. Cold weather and storms were my constant companions. 

I managed to see  a ray of light for just a few hours, I never had any chance to dry my equipment, and I warmed up inside my van. Every night I slept only a few hours because of loud wind noise or strong rain storms. Day-by-day I grew tireder and more feeble. One day, three weeks after I left home, I was in South Tirol descending a mountain when I decided to conclude my trip, and I returned home safe.

The goal of my trip was to tell scuba adventures from the surface point of view where the water is only a part of the context and not the objective. I made a mini-series film composed of three chapters. Each one brings you inside the scene. What  follows here is the first episode of the trip.

Social Distancing Beneath The Slovenian Soil

The first day of cave diving in Slovenia was very tricky and full of adventures. I had no idea how the second day would go. 

I left my accommodations around 6 a.m., after a good breakfast of cereal, dark chocolate with black coffee, dried fruit, and tasty Italian Parmesan cheese. I could not see anything from my window because what had fallen was not simply rain; it appeared to be an awesome flood. My plan for that day had been delayed.

I think that most parts of dry caves are condemned for hundreds of kilometers. So, I decided to check the weather forecast and water level conditions in caves close to the Croatian border. It would mean driving about four hours to see for myself whether scuba diving was allowed. I didn’t have to remind myself, I was alone here.



Wheels were on the road and local conditions seemed quite good. I had checked the weather on my laptop and understood the risk. If I was lucky, I could dive; if not, I would have to drive back. I drove through Slovenia forest meeting no one. With less than an hour left to my destination, I came across an abandoned farm village, completely empty.

The dive inside Bilpa Jama was breathtaking. Now I was seated beside the cave shore preparing soup to warm myself. After a stunning solo dive, I was cold and wanted only to taste the peace of this magnificent place. While I was dipping  the spoon in my soup cup, I heard a faraway voice, a police woman calling me and asking me to stop eating and come quickly to her. 

After I did as I was asked, she started examining my passport, documents, and permissions. A few minutes later, a huge National Army truck reached us. The soldier had  an abnormal body shape, a man the size of a walking mountain in an Army uniform. Can you imagine how I was feeling in those moments?!

Well, in the end, everything went really well, and I now have a story to tell my grandchildren. 

Once the passport control was over, and they had checked that I did not cross  the border from Croatia to Slovenia illegally (customs was only a few hundred meters  from us), I had the chance to get back to my soup, which by then had turned cold. I warmed it up again, and I spent half an hour seated on a slippery stone covered with moss and lichens watching the beauty of the forest surrounding me.

On the way back to my accomodations in my cave van, I  played a new playlist. 

Four hours later, I approached my country lodge. I was really exhausted,  but I had to refill tanks and plan the next scuba diving days. Once I finished, I watched the forecast again. Unfortunately, it was growing worse, so I decided not to dive and instead get a surface break. Tomorrow I would drive, search, and catch info and GPS coordinates of caves. My tomorrow plans had turned into a sketching and surveying day. 

The Road To Suha Dolca 

I drove and walked for hours and hours, up and down the forest or on lonely roads in search of caves where I could return in winter or perhaps next year. During the last survey of the day, I watched a talented young guy playing a traditional concertina and thought, what a lovely atmosphere and a fitting way to close my hard-working day!


I decided to give a last gaze to Suha Dolca cave, my favorite one, on the way home. This was the third consecutive day I had arrived back at this spot. Observing it day-by-day, I tried to find the best moment to dive this cave.

Until now, it was inaccessible due to the strong flow. I wanted to dive here before leaving Slovenia. Tired and  driving slowly, I parked my van away from my accommodation. Since I had no lunch, I started feeling very hungry. A simple dinner was quickly served: dried fruits and a cup of hot noodle soup.

My ‘NO DIRECTION HOME’ trip was now at its peak. I had become a wanderer. I was alone in a wild country with, yes, an internet connection for historical research and checking the weather. That was the only technology I used. Aside from that, I lived simply. I walked, dived, wrote, and filmed my experience all with my mobile phone.

Rain was tougher than expected. I had hoped to stop for one day, not the two that it took. Following the surveys, the next day I started fixing my video equipment and saving photos and videos I had made on my hard drive.

I had too many ideas, no one clear till the end, and too many cave sketches and GPS points to reorganize; I needed a day to regroup. I just went out for a few hours to check Suha Dolca’s Cave conditions. On this day it seemed that the flow was getting more stable, and general water conditions were growing better. I had to be patient and wait one or two days more for the right conditions. I tried and failed to find a solution on my own, but the water always showed me the way. She told me to wait and to go back to where I came from. Step-by-step I walked the path again.  

The third video chapter of Slovenia Solo Cave Diving is the one I prefer, because I remember the indecision I felt, to stay or to leave. Solo trips are strictly linked to life’s decision.


The last day I was in Slovenia I left the accommodations and asked a new farmer, close to a different cave, if I could sleep inside his barn and dive the river hole on the following day. I was at the same place where I had dived the first day. He told me I could not stay in the barn due to the high risk of bears who live in the surrounding area. I jumped in my van again and I drove to the lake beside Suha Dolca’s Cave. 

I descended the path several times and brought all my scuba gear piece-by-piece. I decided to give myself a chance to dive my dream cave in the late afternoon. I had no other choice. Once I was inside the cave it was unbelievable, and I had a very nice dive even though I was really tired, and again I broke my light arms and camera housing. I resurfaced after the dive into a reed’s lake, which made me feel like a beaver.

I had conflicting feelings as I left Slovenia that same night after making a tricky and stunning dive. Bears, awesome forests, and rural areas were now all behind me. The cave-van played a new disc, I needed to shake off these feelings and look forward to my new goals: Garda Lake’s wrecks, South Tyrol’s stunning lakes, and finally Austria. In the country of green and wide grazing land I wish to dive surrounded by the amazing scenario of beautiful Alps mountains. 

At 9:30 PM I crossed the border again, and  Italy was straight ahead.


Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and CMAS technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of Phy Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. Recently he published his first book entitled, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti.

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