NANNING, Sept. 23 (Xinhua) -- Just days since China authorized imports of fresh coconuts from Cambodia, fruit dealer Chen Peizhu has already received several orders from Chinese buyers.
"Cambodian coconuts are high-quality and have competitive prices. Their fragrant coconut variety is in short supply in China," said Chen, general manager of Yuhua Hongda, a fruit trading company based in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Chen plans to start by importing five containers of coconuts each month, the majority of which will go to trendy coconut chicken hotpot restaurants or be made into bottled coconut water, a healthy drink popular among young Chinese consumers.
"There is a huge gap in the supply of coconuts, coconut water and other related products in China. We expect huge demand for imported coconuts," he said.
Coconuts are not new to Chinese consumers. Coconut milk produced by Coconut Palm Group has long been a household drink, appearing on family banquets alongside Coca-Cola and Pepsi, though its popularity waned when beverages such as bubble tea became trendy and stole the spotlight.
But the fruit has been making a comeback in recent years, entering the sports drink market and being used widely in tea and coffee products, including Luckin Coffee's sought-after coconut-flavored latte.
China's southern island province of Hainan accounts for the majority of domestic output, producing 200 million coconuts a year. Still, Chinese fruit traders are increasingly looking to Southeast Asia to meet the unsatisfied demand.
According to customs data, China imported 1.07 million tonnes of coconuts in 2022, up 22.8 percent from 872,000 tonnes in 2011, with Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines being the main countries of origin.
Karta International, a Malaysian supplier of coconut products, said its coconut water has gained a foothold in the Chinese market and has sold well on platforms such as Pinduoduo and Douyin.
"China is a huge market for us," said Yeow Kian Siang, Karta International's export manager, at the recently concluded 20th China-ASEAN Expo. Chinese people's health awareness is on the rise, and their consumption of healthy drinks such as coconut water will follow, he added.
Guangxi-based fruit company Youxianyuan, which specializes in Thai fruit imports, said that coconuts from Southeast Asia now have more diverse buyers in China.
"We used to supply to fruit retailers mainly. Now, our customers include hotpot restaurants, coconut jelly makers and bubble tea shops, which require a lot of tender coconuts and coconut water," said Mo Jiaming, vice general manager of Youxianyuan.
The marketing of Southeast Asian fruits including coconuts in China has also benefited from the construction of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which brought tariff-free policies, expanded market access and streamlined customs clearance.
For some of China's coconut enthusiasts, the rising popularity of the tropical fruit is also associated with fond memories of the tropical scenery in Southeast Asia, among the most popular overseas destinations for Chinese tourists.
"Coconuts remind me of Thailand, which I visited in May. Summer days on the island of Phuket smell like coconuts," said Liu Rui, a resident of Kunming, the capital of southwest China's Yunnan Province.
"I enjoyed eating coconuts while traveling in Southeast Asia, and I'd happily welcome more coconut elements in my daily life back in China," he said. ■