Europe beckons to Chinese Tourists

As Chinese tourist numbers rise, the industry is making efforts to make them more welcome.

BY DAVID BARTRAM

Chinese tourists are keeping the cash-registers ringing for European tourism at a time when the continent’s own travelers are cutting back on their spending. Travel companies, shops and airlines are among those joining the race to cash in on the “red euro” as Chinese visitor numbers reach record highs.

Around 3 million Chinese visitor trips were made to Europe last year, but with the new opportunities come challenges for the industry not only to continue to attract Chinese tourists but also better serve their specific needs.”The European tourist industries still have a lot to do to adapt effectively to the new influx of Chinese tourists,” says Kevin Latham, author of a report that looks at how the rise of Chinese tourism will change the European travel industry.”We can expect the growth of Chinese tourists visiting Europe to continue, but the rate of growth really depends very much upon what the key stakeholders in the industries in Europe actually do,” says Latham, a senior lecturer at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

“Europe finds itself in an increasingly competitive global tourism market. We have to remember that Chinese tourists don’t have to come to Europe. In fact they can more easily go to Southeast Asia, Australia or New Zealand. There is no inevitability about this flood of Chinese tourists continuing into Europe and we need to be thinking far more seriously about attracting Chinese tourists in more substantive ways.”Latham’s research, produced in conjunction with Hilton Hotels & Resorts and SOAS, should serve as a wake-up call to an industry that has been presented with a welcome opportunity during an otherwise gloomy period for the travel sector.

Kevin Latham from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. [Photo Provided to China Daily]

The UK is particularly keen to attract higher numbers of Chinese visitors. The country has traditionally struggled against other European destinations such as France, Italy and Germany, in part because of visa restrictions. This year the UK can expect to attract around 150,000 Chinese visitors, compared to more than half a million in each of France, Italy and Germany. As the UK remains outside the borderless Schengen Area, Chinese tourists must apply for a separate visa to visit. But despite this hindrance, the UK is working hard to actively promote the country within China via national tourism agency VisitBritain.”Britain is recognized as a destination rich in history and heritage,” says Travis Qian, manager of VisitBritain’s operations on the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong. “What we need is to establish a strong tourism and destination brand which is currently lacking.”To achieve this goal, VisitBritain has launched the Great Britain 3D world tour, a 100-millionpound (116-million-euro) four-year marketing campaign that brings London’s iconic landmarks to the world in virtual format. The tour spent some time in Shanghai earlier this year. “There was a strong surge of social media engagement through VisitBritain’s Weibo feed on Sina,” says Qian. “VisitBritain’s Weibo account has over 150,000 active followers, the most of all government official accounts.” Weibo is the Chinese equivalent of Twitter; and Sina is a leading Chinese web portal. VisitBritain also works closely with British companies involved in the travel sector to promote both their brands and Britain as a whole. A delegation organized by VisitBritain in November took 33 UK suppliers to China including retail outlets, tourist attractions, local tourist boards and hotels.”This is the biggest supplier delegation we have organized since 2006, which shows the high interest from the UK travel industry in China at the moment. Major brands are keen to promote in China because of the strong spending capacity of Chinese tourists. Chinese in the UK spend an average of 1,678 pounds per visit which is three times the world average,” adds Qian. “China is one of the fastest growing and most economically important countries in the world. It is a vital market for VisitBritain, offering long-term growth potential for UK inbound tourism.

Chinese rank the UK very high as an aspirational destination. It is our ambition to turn these positive perceptions into new arrivals.” Despite some encouraging successes, there are still hurdles the VisitBritain team face. As well as the visa situation, a shortage of airport capacity is limiting the amount of inbound flights from China.

Finnair sales director Mikko Rautio. [Photo provided to China Daily]

That is not to say Britain’s weakness is not an opportunity elsewhere on the continent. Finland’s national airline, Finnair, has become a European hub for Chinese tourists after a strong push in China.”Finnair offers the shortest route to Europe from China, and we offer connections to over 50 European cities,” says Mikko Rautio, sales director for the airline. “In the past it was more about European business travelers flying to China, but it is now more and more a question of Chinese travellers – business or leisure – travelling to Europe.”Part of Finnair’s China strategy is to expand services beyond the traditional hubs of Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. The airline will open a new route next May to Chongqing, becoming the first airline to connect the Southwest China city directly to Europe.”Our intention is to double our Asian traffic by 2020, and China is a very important part of this strategy. With rapidly growing outbound tourism along with the internationalization of Chinese companies, second-tier cities are becoming very interesting to Finnair. “It is hoped that the links built by such connections will also have knock-on effects for Finland’s tourist economy.”The vast majority of Finnair’s Chinese passengers use Helsinki to transfer only, but we do see more Chinese tourists making a stopover before they travel onward to other European destinations. Lapland and Santa Claus, of course, also attract tourists from China.”

Bringing Chinese tourists to Europe is, however, only half the battle. Indeed, the real economic benefits often lie in encouraging them to spend whilst they are visiting. A report released by the World Luxury Association earlier this year showed that China now accounts for a quarter of the world’s luxury goods market. While China’s domestic luxury market has grown significantly, the vast majority of Chinese luxury spending occurs overseas. Key European markets, such as France, Italy and the UK, have seen monumental increases in the amount being spent by Chinese tourists.

In 2009 the average Chinese tourist spent over 1,000 euros per head per trip in France. Boutiques and high-end retailers in London’s Bond Street area alone took 230.7 million euros from Chinese tourists in 2010 according a report from London Luxury. The account found that Chinese shoppers were spending an average of 696 euros each per visit to one of these stores. One shop benefiting from this trend is Selfridges, one of the continent’s most prestigious department store chains. In recent years Selfridges has implemented a series of policies designed to encourage Chinese shoppers.

“Selfridges was the first department store in the UK to really welcome and nurture the trading potential from our Chinese customers,” says Sophie Hedley, head of press at Selfridges. “We were the first major retailer in the UK to accept payment by China UnionPay cards and started introducing Chinese speaking employees on the shop-floor a few years ago. “We have witnessed a rapid rise in sales from Chinese customers for the past five or six years, a phenomenon which has hit us a little earlier than other retailers. The growth is consistently in the double digits year on year and shows no sign of stopping.”

A Chinese customer visits the shoe museum at Clarks in Somerset, UK. [Photo Provided to China Daily]

But while Chinese desire for designer labels from high-end department stores has been well publicized, some rather more surprising brands have also benefited from the influx of Chinese visitors to Europe. Clarks, the British shoe brand, has seen an unexpected rise in Chinese customers at its factory outlet store Clarks Village, in Somerset. The store has benefited from Clarks high-quality reputation in China. “We’ve heard that in China there is an ABCD of retail highlights: Aquascutum, Burberry, Clarks and Dolce and Gabbana. Our Chinese customers seem to absolutely love Clarks shoes,” says John Turner, deputy center manager at Clarks Village.

The store has been looking at ways of luring Chinese tourists through advertising campaigns in Chinese media, teaming up with tax refund service Global Blue, and by helping to organize transportation for Chinese visitors in London.”From a financial perspective there was a huge incentive to start attracting Chinese customers. Statistics from June show that we’d had a 237 percent increase in international tourists coming to the village, of which many were Chinese. “In China there are so many counterfeit operations that those who do have money often don’t trust their own retailers to be selling the ‘Real McCoy’. We’ve had customers from China buying up to 10 or 20 pairs of shoes at one time.

Back in China a pair of Clarks shoes can cost upwards of 200 pounds but here you are probably talking 40 or 50 pounds,” says Turner.”That is a significant difference in price and Chinese tourists will calculate that back on their airfare. Now Clarks village is seen, up against the likes of Harrods, as one of the top 10 Chinese attractions in the UK.” Clark’s village in Somerset is one of a number of unexpected tourist destinations across the continent that is tapping into this new market of Chinese tourists. Trier in Germany, birthplace of Karl Marx, sees around 13,000 Chinese tourists a year visit the Karl-Marx-Haus museum. Montargis, a small town in central France, is also popular for historical reasons – many of those involved in the early foundations of the Communist Party of China spent time there during the 1910s. Such China-specific tourist sites are a reminder to Europe’s travel industry that they
must adapt to better serve Chinese tourists.

Nick Haley, co-founder and director of Danos & Haley, a travel company that provides bespoke tours of the United Kingdom to Chinese clients, appreciates the need for this customized approach.

“Prior to establishing our business we determined that Chinese tourists have not always had the best experience in the UK,” says Haley. “In the past they have tended to be offered tours showing ‘the best of the UK’ without really thinking how relevant it is to Chinese visitors from a cultural point of view. “Our clients want to gain a strong understanding of British society, so rather than going to a tourist attraction and doing the fairly mundane things people have done in the past, we provide VIP hospitality to give our guests the opportunity to mix and mingle with prominent members of business and society. “The hope is that such a personalized approach to Europe’s Chinese visitors will not only keep them happy, but, as Latham is so keen to stress, encourage them to spread the word back home.

“Increasingly outbound tourist  satisfaction in China is important because one of the driving factors pushing forward tourism is word of mouth. Increase tourist satisfaction and more people will be telling their friends, relatives and even strangers online that Europe is a good place to go to.”Europe has to innovate and adapt as well as being proactive. If the European tourist industry just assumes that more and more Chinese tourists are going to come to Europe they are likely to get left behind. If you want to really exploit the potential of that market then more innovation and adaptation needs to be introduced.”

Article published on Dec. 2, 2011 in China Daily European edition, available from Chinadaily.com.cn

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