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.

China travel market update 20 November ‘20

China’s domestic travel market continues to make a strong post-pandemic recovery. China’s three largest carriers each launched 10 new domestic routes in October while China’s largest airline, China Southern, returned to profit in Quarter 3. Meanwhile key hotel markets including Sanya, Shenzhen, Chengdu and Xi’an have recently recorded occupancy levels of more than 70%.  And Alibaba’s online travel platform Fliggy reported more than double last year’s sales of domestic hotel nights during China’s annual online shopping bonanza Singles Day.

Intra-China passenger flights stood at 98% last year’s volumes in September in the build-up to Golden Week, the first in the time of Covid-19. And while countries across Europe were entering second lockdowns in early October, photos of busy tourist spots and transport hubs showed the Middle Kingdom rediscovering its wanderlust. The chairman and co-founder of online travel mega-agency Trip.com, Liang Jianzhang, forecast that China’s domestic tourism market would be fully recovered by the end of 2020.

China-Southeast Asia travel bubbles opening

At least 500 million Chinese went on holiday during Golden Week. In fact China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism puts the number of travellers as high as 637 million. And Chinese online travel agency Qunar.com reported an increase of around +20% in the average hotel booking price compared to last year.

Attesting to China’s regained consumer confidence, a USD500 million Legoland theme park is planned for Shanghai. The first Chinese holidaymakers in 7 months arrived in Thailand in October, and a Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble is due for launch on 22 November.

A return to explosive shopping?

The Pfizer/BioNTech announcement that their Covid-19 vaccination candidate proved 90% effective in global trials has received widespread coverage in China. This follows positive news for the nation’s own candidate vaccines. And with Covid-19 largely under control at home, the return of one coronavirus positive tourist from Mongolia in recent days has been headline news.

Chinese tourists are not just returning to travelling – they’re spending too. The Middle Kingdom’s – and perhaps the world’s – biggest annual shopping day, Singles Day, on 11 November broke all spending records. China’s online retail giant Alibaba reported record sales of 583,000 purchases every second with 1.9 billion sales in total.

Although the Chinese economy took a significant dip during the heights of the pandemic in Quarter 1, it picked up speed in Quarters 2 and 3. Quarter 3 saw growth of +4.9% year/year, and retail sales grew by +3.3% in September. China is the first major economy to resume growth at pre-pandemic levels and is expected to be the only G20 economy to grow this year.

How to do business in China: the importance of guanxi

If you’ve ever made a business trip to China, you’ll have heard about guanxi. If you’re new to China and considering doing business there, you need to know about guanxi. So what is this key element of building relationships with Chinese business partners? What is the importance of guanxi?

Who you know is more important than what you know

It isn’t easy to directly translate guanxi into English but its approximate meaning is ‘social connections’ or ‘personal relationships’. Essentially it refers to the interpersonal networks of people we each build to help us succeed in our careers. And guanxi is key to being successful in business in China.

For much of Chinese history, guanxi has been the glue that has held society together. Traditional Chinese society was mostly rural and built around family and social connections, which are also emphasised in Confucianism. Essentially, it’s natural to do business with people you know. We might even characterise guanxi as ‘Who you know is more important than what you know’.

So how should you approach doing business in China, taking guanxi into account?  And can you create your own guanxi?

Creating your own guanxi

Is it possible for a non-Chinese person to create their own guanxi? Tony Evans did. Tony is Co-Founder of Bristol International College and Experio Life Ltd, a consultancy business specialising in educational travel for the youth market. With more than 30 years’ experience in education and a continent-spanning career, Tony is used to cross-border working and international collaboration. So he wasn’t phased by getting involved with the Chinese market. We spoke to Tony to hear more about his experiences.

In 2015 Tony identified untapped Chinese demand for international education. Working with a Chinese business partner in the UK, Tony selected and appointed a bilingual in-country representative. The local rep identified suitable schools and agents, arranged local introductions, and planned itineraries and every aspect of travel. Tony visited China two or three times every year, spending about 30 days annually travelling vast distances and holding many meetings in China to build relationships and establish that all-important guanxi.

The result? In 2019, 50% of Tony’s summer school students were from China – an increase from just 10% in 2016.

How to do business in China

So it is possible to create your own connections, or guanxi. But it’s a lot of work and commitment, and you need inside help.

  1. Have a trusted local partner

Work with a local partner to identify the right people to meet. The right person in China knows your market and industry, and will have the necessary connections to match you with promising business contacts.

  • Get introductions

Make sure you’re not approaching potential business partners ‘cold’. A written introduction from a trusted Chinese contact is the minimum; an inperson introduction is better.

  • Work with a local translator who is not just bilingual but bicultural

Use a translator who understands your industry jargon and can interpret cultural differences for you. Understanding cultural and linguistic nuance is vital to achieving results.

Many cross-cultural challenges in business

And tackling guanxi is just one cross-cultural challenge among many. Don’t forget:

  • Seniority is important. It’s vital that senior associates make contacts and nurture relationships. Don’t ever send someone who the Chinese might perceive as junior to a meeting
  • The Chinese don’t like to say no. Apparent agreement is often not what it seems
  • Meeting etiquette is important. What Westerners perceive as ‘small talk’ is crucial relationship-building

We can help you establish great working relationships with business partners in China. We are experts in promoting tourism brands in the Chinese market and have long-term relationships with the important Chinese media, Key Opinion Leaders (influencers) and travel trade. The travel specialists in our Beijing office have existing guanxi with many of your potential business partners – and can visit them in person to promote your product ready for when China’s 100 million plus outbound tourists start booking overseas travel again.

Contact us now for a no obligation chat about the possibilities of the Chinese outbound travel market and how we can help guanxi work for you.

Travelling to be seen: the rise of daka tourism in China

When the Chinese first began to travel overseas, the cliché was that they loved to take short trips covering as many destinations and countries as possible. And while this contained some truth in the early days, Chinese travel patterns have evolved towards longer, more in-depth holidays. Getting under the skin of a destination and enjoying authentic local experiences has fast moved to the top of the Chinese tourist’s wishlist.

Yet there are as many different travel styles as there are Chinese tourists – millions – and the latest millennial trend is daka tourism. Daka tourism – essentially to be seen to have been somewhere, or preferably many places – is enjoying its time in the sun as the latest trend driving domestic travel in China.

In the Middle Kingdom, there is kudos to be seen to have visited significant and fashionable places, especially temporary ones. And how best to show you have visited somewhere? Through sharing digital video evidence on Douyin. Douyin is the original, censored version of Tik Tok with 230 million monthly users. Where Tik Tok rules for short video content in the USA and Europe, its censored parent Douyin rules in China. At the heart of Chinese digital trends, it’s through Douyin that daka culture has really taken off.

“Punching in”

The term daka originally refers to “punching in”, the act of using a card to punch in and out of work. In its latest form daka tells of marking one’s visit to a hot destination by posting on social media.

“Make every second count” is Douyin’s slogan, and this is reflected in the proliferation of short destination videos in the app.

Unexpected consequences of daka include the recent surge in travellers to Zhanjiang, an otherwise unremarkable city in Guangdong province. Location of the hit tv show Bad Kids, Zhanjiang is experiencing an unexpected boom in visitors to locations featured in the drama, including a swimming pool which has achieved the dizzying heights of 2,000 visitors daily. And in the city of Chongqing, the mock-traditional style of architecture of a stilt-house complex in Honyadong became the second-most popular attraction in China after the Forbidden City thanks to a surge in Douyin coverage.

Selfies in space

Daka culture has its roots, of course, in selfies. Selfies have gradually infiltrated our most important moments over the last few years, making experiences more real and memorable by the act of digitally memorialising them. We usually think of selfies as a recent digital trend, but their history actually goes back centuries. The Library of Congress in the USA holds a picture Robert Cornelius took of himself in 1839, believed to be the world’s first photographic selfie. Second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, took the first space selfie in 1966, and what are Rembrandt’s self-portraits than a selfie by slower means? The 1990s saw selfies take grip in Japan as part of kawaii [cute] culture. In 2001 Instagram introduced auto filters for beautifying faces. And so in 2020 we arrive at daka culture.

Ephemeral beauty

Daka culture is related to, but not the same as, the search for Instagrammable backgrounds. While London’s Sketch hopes to use its soft pink benches to attract Instagrammers for years to come, a daka-friendly venue is more likely to be a pop-up, temporary in its location and especially on-trend in its looks.

Pre-pandemic China saw daku zu – daka tribes – touring cities to “punch as many destination cards as possible”. Travel agents started offering daka tours, and social media-friendly installations are even taking off in the art world. Savvy destinations and attractions ‘build in’ striking views and backgrounds to their offering, and plan PR-worthy temporary installations. Tourism brands work with Key Opinion Leaders and influencers on Douyin to encourage them to visit to put them on the daka map.

It will be fascinating to see how long daka tourism endures – especially if it turns out to be as fleeting as the visits it inspires.