The Indian government on Friday launched a first attempt to boost the export of Indian tea to China, the world's biggest tea consumer, but is likely to face an uphill task in penetrating a competitive and already over-crowded market, according to Chinese retailers.

On Friday, India invited some of China's biggest retailers and importers of tea to a tasting session in Beijing to sample Assam and Darjeeling teas, which are being marketed as a high-end product for China's fast growing market for luxury teas.

The effort, Chinese retailers and importers said, was welcome but may have come too late, with Sri Lanka, a major tea exporter, already cornering much of the Chinese import market, particularly for black teas.

“This is our very first attempt to showcase Indian tea,” Arun Kumar Sahu, political and cultural counsellor at the Indian Embassy in Beijing, told The Hindu. “China has its own tea culture. Though Chinese have their own taste for green tea and red tea, this is our way to show tea is part of our culture, and that the history of our tea is a global one,'' he said.

“We have a rich history of Indian tea and I think our brands, like Darjeeling, are a high-end product,” he said. “I will not be surprised if in a few years' time it will be the high-end sector of Chinese society from where demand for Indian tea will come.”

Five years ago, Siliguri-based Lochan Tea became one of the first Indian companies to enter into a commercial contract with a Chinese firm to sell Darjeeling tea in China. Makaibari Royal Tea of Darjeeling has also begun selling its products here. Marco Wu, a representative of the company, said five years on, the market for Indian teas was “still small, but growing.”

“In the few years we have been here, the demand has grown, but we are still talking about very small numbers,” he said. In China, green tea is the most widely consumed. The luxury market, which India is targeting, is more diverse, but very price-conscious, Chinese retailers say. Tea is a popular gift in Chinese culture, but the price-tag and brand name count.

“The luxury market is well defined, so it will be difficult for Indian brands to enter here,” said one Chinese representative at the Friday's event. Ding Ding, a representative of the Mantangxiang Tea Group, one of Beijing's biggest retailers and sellers of foreign teas, said Indian tea had some advantages, in quality and taste, but faced a tough battle to garner a foothold in China.

“Compared to Chinese tea, the advantage of Indian tea, especially red tea, is the quality is very high,” she told The Hindu. “It is organic and natural, and there are no chemicals.” The biggest obstacle, she said, was Indian companies did not do enough to promote their brands in China, which are still an unknown. Her company has been selling Indian, Japanese and Sri Lankan teas for three years. The latter two, particularly Sri Lankan brands, far outsell Indian Darjeeling and Assam teas in China, she said, with Sri Lanka being more active in reaching out to the Chinese market.

“Assam and Darjeeling are very popular, and there is growth every year,” she said. “But if India really wants to make a mark, it has to do more to promote its tea, and send its tea companies to China.”

Friday's event, she said, was ‘a start', although one that may have come too late.