12 months on from the lockdown of Wuhan, we ask ‘When will Chinese tourists be back in Britain?’

This article, written by China Travel Outbound’s Managing Director, Helena Beard, appeared on the UK travel trade website, Travelmole, in January 2021.

China has successfully controlled the spread and impact of Covid-19 despite being the first country to have been affected 12 months ago. The number of recorded infections stands at just over 88,000 cases and 4,635 deaths have been recorded; incredible figures considering the population of China is more than 1.4 billion. As small outbreaks occur, entire cities are periodically locked down and the level of compliance is extremely high. Day to day life is much more normal now in China. But when can we expect to see these valuable, high spending tourists back in the UK?

The UK and the Chinese media – how is Britain perceived?

The UK hit the headlines in China at the beginning of the pandemic. While our government  discussed herd immunity, Asia scratched its collective head in confusion as to why the UK was not being locked down immediately. Our colleagues in China urged us to take the virus more seriously than our leaders, to get fit, lose weight and stock up on disposable masks, way before any of these messages hit our own news bulletins. There was then a long period where Chinese news was dominated by the situation in the USA and other countries. However, recently, the UK has been back as a ’hot topic’ on Chinese social media, Weibo, due to the new variant of the virus. 

On the plus side, the fact that the Oxford vaccine was developed here reinforces Britain’s position as the leading academic centre of the world, which will be positive for Brand Britain both in terms of international education and tourism from countries which value such things (particularly the Asian countries). Also, the emergence of various strains of the virus in other corners of the world eg South Africa and Brazil (and there are bound to be more), will lessen the significance of this individual variant and its prevalence in Britain. The news about vaccinations and the (hopefully) swift vaccinating of the British citizens provides great hope for the travel industry going forward.

However, that is not to belittle the seriousness of the current situation in the UK and the Chinese are very much aware that our country’s ‘performance’ vs Covid-19 in terms of infection rate and deaths is very poor. Whilst this continues to be the case, it is unlikely that the authorities will allow travel to and from the UK. There is currently a ban in place with no defined date when it will be lifted. This week, of course, the UK too has its own bans being implemented.

More generally, the international travel market from China is temporarily and effectively closed to all but the ‘exceptions’. Outbound tour operators are still closed and most staff have been redeployed to work in the domestic travel market (which is booming due to the pent up demand for travel). In many ways, this is good news. Those staff will return to international travel when it re-opens and, hopefully, there are not too many trade contacts who will be entirely lost to the industry.

Vaccinations in China

Beijing has begun its vaccination programme, aiming to have vaccinated all 21million+ citizens of Beijing by the end of March. Priority is being offered to students and business people who need to travel for study and work. This is a clear indication that the government of China values highly international trade and education. It has been reported that vaccinations are planned to reach 50 million people across 75 Chinese cities by Chinese New Year in mid February.

When will the Chinese start to return to the UK?

The short answer is that they will return when it is safe to do so. We do not believe that the image of Britain has been significantly damaged in China by its response to Covid-19 nor by Brexit and we are confident that there is still a high aspiration amongst Chinese people to visit the UK for all the reasons they have always longed to visit and study here (heritage, the royal family, culture, nature, education, home of the English language). But the Chinese government will decide when it is safe for people to come and that will depend entirely on how the virus is controlled, the roll out of the vaccination programme and the emergence of any new variants.

If all goes well, we can reasonably expect to see some FIT travellers returning to the UK this summer and students returning to universities in September. I think it is less likely that we will see a return of Chinese school children this summer on study tours as parents are likely to be more cautious. It is entirely possible that, during the Autumn and Winter season of 2021/22, the Asian market’s dislike of the cold British weather may be trumped by their desire to travel, creating an extraordinary peak season for this market.

It should be noted that there are other unknowns to consider. In a move that I fail to understand, VAT reclaim for international visitors to Britain was abolished on 31 Dec 20. This will doubtless make the UK somewhat less attractive than its European counterparts for all international tourists with an interest in shopping, but not least the Chinese. Perhaps this could be off set by any fall in sterling, but we don’t know how the pound is going to respond to Brexit in the longer term. And the political relationship between the UK and China is yet to play out following the US electoral result, the situation in Hong Kong, the UK’s stance regarding the treatment of Uyghur muslims, and any trade disputes.

Don’t ignore the Chinese student market

What does seem safe to say is that the USA’s relationship with China is worse than the UK’s. There is also a big issue of anti-Chinese sentiment and concerns over racist attacks in Australia. So international students, given the choice, are likely to choose Britain over America and Australia this year. In fact, 2020 (pre covid) research by New Oriental showed for the first time that the UK had moved into the top popularity spot as the most desirable destination for Chinese students, above the USA. In 2019, around 120,000 students came the Britain to study and their disposable income is five times that of a British student, so this is a segment with huge potential for UK tourism.

Read more about Chinese students and how to target them here.

Is it worth spending any money in China at the moment?

The short answer is yes, it is worth spending money on staying front of mind, on brand building, on placing reassuring messages that your attraction or destination is taking Covid seriously and is a safe and secure environment, and in maintaining relationships and loyalty with consumers, fans, followers, media and trade partners. It is not worth spending money on activity expecting to generate a short term return on investment.

We manage a number of Chinese social media accounts for our clients and these have been maintained throughout the pandemic. Despite the uncertainty, followers on Weibo for our larger accounts are still building at approximately 50% of 2019 levels. However, views are 5% up. But the most remarkable difference has been seen in engagements, where people have the time to get more involved in content and comment, like and share posts. Engagements in 2020 were a massive 45% up year on year on our travel Weibo accounts.  We are also seeing very good responses to the promotions we have been running with partners such as VisitBritain and Edinburgh Tourism Action Group.

This level of engagement and the clear desire to continue dreaming about travel, is why international destinations have continued to spend heavily on their Chinese social media accounts throughout the pandemic. Loyalty to China is also an extremely important factor in future success.

How many will come?

In terms of visitor figures, the Chinese market itself is likely to be smaller than 2019 for at least a couple of years. However, this is likely to be true of all international markets. Where the Chinese market will differ is that the ‘value’ of the market is likely to be higher, in terms of spend per visitor and environmental impact. China is one of the very few countries in the world whose economy is growing as we head into 2021. According to The Centre for Economics and Business Research, (CEBR) the Chinese economy will grow by 5.7% for the next five years. People in China still have money and they still want to travel. Fewer are likely to come, but they will travel to more diverse regions, travel differently and spend more money. They are going to be extremely valuable tourists for the UK. Students will also have spent a year learning online and saving their money. They are already an affluent segment. Next year, that affluence is likely to be even more marked.

I believe that one impact of Covid is that it has returned the tourism industry to a level playing field ie. there are opportunities for attractions, destinations, hotels which have not traditionally attracted the Chinese market to now position themselves as perfect for this market in a post Covid world. The rule book has been rewritten. It is not a foregone conclusion that, just because an attraction or hotel had a huge share of this market pre-covid, it will hold onto that share post-covid. The competition for this valuable market will be immense once it starts up again.

Marketing Britain to China

Travel and tourism businesses also need to consider another factor at play; the activities and plans of their national tourist boards. VisitBritain currently has no plans for a major advertising campaign in China for this year, nor is there a plan at this stage around the usual trade activities such as Destination Britain China. The focus for now is on the European markets, presumably to offset the impact of Brexit on Brand Britain and, perhaps understandably, to target what is seen as the ‘lower hanging fruit’ in terms of short term visitor numbers from neighbouring countries. This year, UK destinations, attractions and retailers in the Chinese market can not rely on VisitBritain’s activity to pull them through. If China was an important market to you pre-Covid, it is likely you will want to recover it post-Covid. It would be foolhardy to risk allowing the Chinese to forget you.

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