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.

The new Chinese tourists: how to make them welcome

With recent news of Covid-19 vaccines, the natural optimism of the travel industry is starting to re-emerge – and all eyes are on China. The Chinese domestic market is well on its way to recovery and it seems set to be the first outbound market to recover too. So what’s changed since the arrival of coronavirus and how can tourism brands get ready for the new Chinese tourists?

In the first stages of post-pandemic travel, prices for travel and accommodation in China were reduced to stimulate demand. Latterly, as demand has climbed towards normal levels, prices have stabilised. China’s largest airline, China Southern, returned to profit in Quarter 3, and Boeing predicts that it will sell 8,600 jets worth US$1.7 trillion to the Middle Kingdom over the next 20 years.

China’s economy has bounced back too. The world’s second-biggest economy grew by +4.9% year/year in Quarter 3 and it’s set to be the only major economy to grow in 2020. Luxury is booming, restaurant chains are expanding and rising spend on socialising is providing a welcome boost to overseas spirit brands.

The rise of revenge travel

Meanwhile revenge travel has taken off in the Middle Kingdom, proving the resilience of Chinese travellers. Wuhan was China’s most-visited city during Golden Week in early October. And a recent survey by Hilton found that 91% of Chinese travellers plan to travel again once the travel restrictions ease and they can travel with peace of mind.

There is plenty of evidence, then, of a return to high demand for travel from the world’s largest outbound market. And as soon as China lifts its quarantine restrictions and allows free movement, its citizens will once again take to the skies to explore the world.

Are you ready?

But how do you ensure that your tourism brand is ready to welcome the new wave of Chinese tourists? How will you meet their post-pandemic needs? Some small insight into Chinese culture and providing menus in Chinese is no longer enough to stand out from the crowd and attract your fair share of these high-spending travellers.

Freedom, fresh air and luxury

The growing interest in self-drive and self-guided tours has strengthened in the post-pandemic Chinese domestic travel market. Freedom to create their own tours and explore off the beaten track is increasing attractive to Chinese tourists, and a great opportunity for more out-of-the-way destinations and attractions to expand its share of this business.

Trends also reveal a renewed interest in being in nature, with 53% of Chinese parents and 56% of Gen Z travellers citing this as a draw for travel. Fresh air and spending time in rural locations is increasingly important on trips. Gardens and countryside spots are likely to see a corresponding uptick in Chinese visitors.

Luxury trips are also showing growth in China, as tourists treat themselves to an indulgent holiday to make up for missing vacations earlier in the year. Enjoying high quality food and drink and trying out new experiences are important too, as travellers yearn to expand their horizons and satisfy their wanderlust with new and exciting adventures.

The rise of daka tourism is likely to drive even more Gen Z Chinese tourists to venture overseas too.

Brush up on your China Welcome

In Mandarin, the concept of hospitality suggests being friendly to strangers and treating guests well, so that’s what the Chinese expect when visiting new places. Hotels need to positively welcome Chinese visitors, and that’s not just about a friendly check-in; an understanding of Chinese culture and true anticipation of Chinese tourists’ needs is necessary. This may include tea on arrival and help carrying suitcases, and it certainly includes showing respect to Chinese guests.

In the age of coronavirus, Chinese guests expect to be appreciated for their willingness to travel. Of course hotels, destinations and visitor attractions need to show that they’re safe and hygienic too. Enhanced cleaning regimes, no-touch protocols wherever possible, and increased digitisation will all help attract and reassure the new wave of Chinese tourists.

We can help you get ready for the new wave of travellers from China. All types of tourism brands can benefit from our advice on welcoming the new Chinese tourists. And for hotels specifically, we have launched a NEW affordable, ‘Get ready for China’ consultancy service which combines an introduction to Chinese culture, update on post-pandemic trends, advice on sales and marketing your hotel, along with great tips for preparing your offering to make your Chinese guests feel welcome.

‘Get Ready for China’ hotel consultancy (one hour) – £300 plus VAT

Independent, single property – discounted rate – £200 plus VAT until 31 January 2021.

The meeting will be conducted over Zoom and can include up to three attendees. Additional attendees will be charged at £50 per person.

Contact Julie Withers to book your dedicated hour today.

Chinese Tourism Leaders’ (Virtual) Forum 2020

On 21 October, we were delighted to share insight into the Chinese travel market with senior representatives from the UK’s leading destination organisations, transport operators, tour operators and visitor attractions at the fourth annual Chinese Tourism Leaders’ event. Hosted by China Travel Outbound and Capela China, settling around Zoom wasn’t quite the same as enjoying Peking Duck in Chinatown but it was a fantastic success nevertheless.

Vivienne Song, China Director for China Travel Outbound, and Helena Beard, Managing Director in the UK, shared the latest information on the Chinese travel market. We heard that life in China is back to normal with the only Covid-19 changes relating to mask-wearing and Track and Trace requirements. China’s domestic travel market has been the first in the world to recover, with flight bookings down only -2% in August, and 75% of China’s travel agents back at work. Post-Covid-19 revenge travel took hold for Golden Week with 637 million trips being made, and strengthening trends include small tailormade tours, self-drive, rail, and luxury and personalised service. A lust for open spaces, remote islands, and direct contact with local cultures will be an emerging trend once the market returns to our shores.

We were delighted to be joined by Richard Nicholls, Head of Research and Forecasting for VisitBritain, who talked us through recent changes to VisitBritain China stats. For several years now there have been significant anomalies between VisitBritain figures for Chinese inbound tourists to the UK, and data from other sources such as number of visas issued. This issue has been discussed at length by the Chinese Tourism Leaders’ group in the past so the audience was very happy to hear that this has now been resolved.  The updated stats show a very substantial increase in Chinese inbound tourist visits to the UK with the revised total more than doubling to 860,000 in 2018. 2019 saw 883,000 Chinese inbound visits to the UK. In fact China’s £1.7bn spend in 2019 makes it the second largest inbound market by expenditure.

The timing for the return of the market was also discussed, with expectation that the first significant influx of Chinese tourists will be seen in Summer 2021. More accurate predications will be possible following Chinese New Year in February 21 when we will see how and where the Chinese government lifts restrictions on international travel. Helena Beard highlighted to the audience that the more immediate opportunity lies with international students and announced that a new student-focused product would be launched by the agency next month to service this market.

We also heard from Clive Doble of Value Retail, Bicester Village, who talked about the abolition of tax-free shopping for international visitors to the UK from 1st January ’21. This policy would make it about 20% more expensive for Chinese travellers to visit the UK and shop here. It would have a detrimental impact on international visitor figures and come as a huge blow to the inbound tourism sector which is already one of the sectors impacted most severely by COVID-19.  Joss Croft, CEO of UKinbound, reassured the forum that intense lobbying continues to try to reverse this decision.

The Chinese Tourism Leaders’ group was created by specialist agencies China Travel Outbound and Capela China to share insights and best practice between the destinations, visitor attractions, transport companies and tourism brands who are at the forefront of Chinese inbound tourism to the UK.