Paws up: the new luxury lifestyle for pets in China

Pandas may be the animal we most associate with China, but the growing trend of pet ownership in the People’s Republic reveals an increasing love for dogs and cats. China’s total pet population – a category which includes dogs, cats, birds, fish and a reassuringly small number of reptiles – passed 500,000 in 2017 and shows no sign of slowing.

Traditionally, animals in China have been viewed as sources of food rather than companions. Having an animal purely for pleasure was a luxury which few could afford. But pet ownership has boomed in recent years. Keeping a dog or cat is especially popular among younger generations including millennials, with later (or no) marriage, high disposable income and a desire for companionship driving pet ownership.

By some estimates, China’s pet retail market is worth more than the nation’s tea industry.

In May 2020 China’s cats and dogs were officially reclassified as “companion pets”. Previously they had been recognised as agricultural and livestock products. As the purpose of having a cat or dog has changed, the corresponding commercial environment has grown. Cat cafes are multiplying. Chain brands are expanding in pet hospitals, pet beauty and insurance. There are even dog and cat influencers, or Key Opinion Leaders as they are known in China. In 2020, China’s top beauty influencer and livestreamer, Li Jiaqi, debuted his puppy Never, who has become an influencer in his own right. Never even appears on his own make-up palette.

It’s (not) a dog’s life

Recent research indicates that the domestication of dogs first took place in southern China around 15,000 years ago.  Ancient China valued dogs for their usefulness and lauded their loyalty with jade amulets and statuary outside homes. But dogs were also killed to release their spirits for protection. The tradition of burying dogs outside homes for protection eventually graduated to statues of lion-dogs at the gates of temples and cities. Meanwhile Pekingese enjoyed special treatment as Royal lapdogs in the Forbidden City, sleeping on silk cushions and cared for by eunuchs who worked for the Dog Raising Office.

Yet during the Mao era, owning pets was vilified as bourgeouis, frivolous and wasteful. For many decades it was illegal to own a dog in Beijing, and as recently as 2011 Guangzhou added a ‘one dog’ policy to the existing ‘one child’ rules. In 2014 the Communist Party’s official news outlet, the People’s Daily, decried a “dog infestation” and denounced dogs as elitist. But by then the horse – or dog – had bolted. Pet ownership was embedded in the ways of the burgeoning Chinese middle-class and only set to grow.

Confucius had a cat

Cats also have a long history in China. In northwest China, small cat bones – indicating a domesticated feline – were found at an archaeological site, dating human-feline interaction to more than 5,000 years ago. Depictions of cats in Chinese art abound. Confucius had a cat.

Yet there is no Year of the Cat in the Chinese zodiac. Legend has it that the cat was sleeping on the day of the race that would decide which animals would be included. This will come as no surprise to cat owners. Or cats.

Especially favoured by young women, many Chinese felines are enjoying a luxury lifestyle. The Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medicine Neurology and Acupuncture Animal Health Centre offers acupuncture for cats. Their wardrobes are expanding to include hanfu, the traditional clothing of China’s Han ethnic group. There’s even a new Chinese phrase, smoking cats, to refer to spending quality time with feline friends.  

No longer on the menu

In common with many other countries in East Asia, the once widespread practice of eating dogs and cats is in decline as incomes rise, tastes change and the status of animals increases. The origin of Covid-19 in a wet market in Wuhan heightened opposition to eating exotic animal meat, and led to Chinese authorities banning the trade and consumption of wild animals. In April 2020 Shenzhen became the first city in China to ban the sale and consumption of dog and cat meat.

But China’s pet world is not without controversy. Fashion has recently favoured Western breeds such as golden retrievers, poodles and labradors while the status and value of Pekingese has declined. Panda dogs and panda dog cafes seem to exemplify a trend towards pets as playthings. And a (presumably) unsuspecting Tibetan Mastiff was caught masquerading as a lion at a zoo in Henan province in 2013.

For most pets, though, it seems that life is good in China. Whether you’re a pampered Pekingese or a committed Meowist, the future’s bright in the Middle Kingdom.

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.

Chinese students in the UK: why YOU need to market to them

A record high of over 120,000 Chinese students studied in the UK in 2018-9, and they now make up the biggest single nationality amongst foreign students here. Chinese students benefit from generous allowances and are keen to enjoy the best of their host country. They’re especially eager to visit new places and they’re getting their inspiration not from UK media but from Chinese social channels.

International students have also been identified by China as a priority segment for receiving vaccines which, hopefully, will enable them to return to international universities in 2021.

So let’s look a closer look at Chinese students in higher education in the UK; who are they, and why should you be promoting your product to them?

Chinese students have lots of money to spend

Wealthy Chinese students studying abroad have annual allowances in the tens of thousands of pounds, making them a massive target for brands. Stories of Chinese students chartering private ‘planes to travel to and from university abound, and some calculations put Chinese students’ average disposable income at around £28,000.

And at a time when high-end retail is suffering, Chinese students continue to provide a rich source of shoppers for luxury outlets and gift shops at visitor attractions.

And they’re not just in London

Three out of the top ten universities by share of Chinese students are in the North, with the University of Liverpool alone hosting nearly 5,000 Chinese students in total. Nearby the University of Manchester hosts a similar number while the University of Sheffield welcomes around 3,700. Meanwhile Cardiff University is home to 3,500 Chinese students. With a national spread, all but the most remote of tourism providers can benefit in investing in activities to attract this cohort.

Chinese students like to travel 

China Travel Outbound’s research with Wonderful Copenhagen carried out in early 2020 found that more than a third of surveyed Chinese students in the UK had already been on a city break while studying here. And 25% planned to take another international city break during their time here. In fact, the average number of overseas city breaks already taken was three, with an average length of stay of 6.2 nights. 

And they will actively be looking for places to visit over Easter and the summer holidays

Limited flight capacity between the UK and China, and the possible requirement of quarantine on return to their home country, will encourage Chinese students to remain in Europe over the university holidays. So they’ll actively be looking for places to visit.

Chinese students are great advocates for your product

Studies show that Chinese students overseas continue to use Chinese social media such as Weibo, WeChat and Little Red Book rather than migrating to Instagram and Twitter. Our research with Wonderful Copenhagen found that fewer than 1 in 5 students used Instagram and fewer than 1 in 20 used Facebook. And the nature of the Chinese digital landscape and online connectedness of Chinese students and Gen Z means that those visiting are great advocates for your product, with influence far beyond these shores to their fellow netizens at home.

Chinese students can help you maintain a presence in Chinese digital channels when Chinese outbound tourists, including China’s Key Opinion Leaders, are in short supply, and help influence destination choice when outbound travel from China fully starts up again.

Chinese students often stay in the UK after graduating

Since the UK brought back the two-year post-study work visa in 2019, graduating overseas students have been allowed to stay in the UK for to work, or look for work, in any career or position of their choice for two years after completing their studies. With the chance to work overseas a big draw in studying in the UK, your chances of repeat visits, especially with visiting friends and family, make Chinese students an even more profitable prospect.

And the UK is now the number one choice for Chinese students who would like to study overseas

A July ’20 study by New Oriental Education, one of China’s largest educational firms, found that 47% of Chinese students would choose the UK to study abroad, with 37% choosing the US. This is the first time that the UK has overtaken the US as the top destination for Chinese students in this survey.

With China the single largest country of origin for international students worldwide, with over 600,00 Chinese studying overseas in 2018, the prospects for UK tourism to benefit from the patronage of Chinese students has never been brighter.

Contact us now for a no obligation chat about how we can help you attract Chinese students to your destination, visitor attraction or retail outlet today.

How can you reach this valuable audience?

We have a full range of services available to target Chinese students in the UK.

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.

Chinese students and the UK education market: an interview with Tony Evans, Co-Founder of Experio Life and Bristol International College

Tony, tell us about yourself; what’s your experience in education and what do you do?

After graduating in Modern European Studies in 1984 and travelling extensively throughout Europe for a year, I embarked on a career in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) which spanned 6 years and took me to Germany, Italy and France. I then moved into Operations Management (staff recruitment, programming and troubleshooting) before taking on roles in Sales and Marketing with a number of leading organizations in the industry. Since September 1995 I have been involved in the creation and management of 4 start-up companies in the UK, France and Germany. In 2001, I set up Experio Life Ltd., a consultancy business specializing in educational travel for the youth market and in 2019 I co-founded Bristol International College, a University of London-recognised teaching centre located in the heart of Bristol.

What proportion of Chinese students attend your independent and public schools? And how has the market changed over the last few years?

In 2019, 50% of our international students were from China compared to less than 10% in 2016. While it’s true that we saw growth in many existing and several new markets over that period, none was so strong as that from China.

When did you start first realise that there might be an opportunity to attract Chinese students to independent schools and summer schools in the UK?

Since the early 2000s, we have had a good number of Hong Kong students every year but in spite of the best efforts of those Hng Kong-based agents to penetrate the mainland Chinese market, we didn’t welcome our first Chinese students until 2014.

How did you approach the market?

In the first instance, we were approached by the Bristol-China Partnership (now known as the Bristol & West of England China Bureau) to host a small group of friends and relatives of one of their Chinese staff members who was also a Post Graduate student at the University of Bristol. This turned out to be a very positive experience for all concerned and was repeated the following summer with a much larger group. At that point I realised the growth potential for student recruitment from China.

How did you find someone to work with in China?

We received another local contact from the Bristol-China Partnership, a Chinese lady with a background in Finance but with great entrepreneurial spirit and skills who had recently moved to Bristol to accompany her son, who had taken up a place in Clifton College Prep School. We immediately agreed to work together on the recruitment of Chinese students for our summer schools and state school integration programmes and I’m delighted to say that we are still working together and had great success up until Covid-19 struck.

At around the same time in 2015, we were talking to a student marketing company about how best to access the Chinese market from an in-country perspective and they recommended that we engage a full-time bilingual Sales Representative who we trained in the UK and then deployed in China to contact and pre-select educational travel agents on our behalf.

You visited China for 30 days/year for several years to build contacts; how did you plan your visits and decide who to meet?

Yes, that’s correct…so from 2016 – 2019 I visited China two or three times per year in order to meet and consolidate existing relationships and to forge new ones with agents who had been pre-selected by our local representative (ie vetted to meet certain criteria that qualified them as having good potential to deliver students to our portfolio of programmes). Our local rep was responsible for the itinerary for each trip including accommodation, ground transportation and flights but in some cases these costs were borne by the agents that we were meeting since I would be required to visit schools and universities together with the agent and often give a presentation to Senior Management Teams, English teachers, students, parents etc.

What are your general experiences of working in China? What were your biggest challenges?

I must say that despite the extensive travel involved and the somewhat repetitive nature of visiting schools and giving presentations, I have really enjoyed all my trips to China and I have been made to feel extremely welcome wherever I have been. And I have eaten some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had anywhere. On the few occasions that I have travelled alone in China, I found the language barrier the biggest challenge…especially with taxi drivers!

Can you tell us about guanxi and how it has affected how you work with the Chinese?

Guanxi is a Chinese term meaning “networks” or “connections” that open doors for new business and facilitate deals. Understanding this concept and how to implement it within the context of student recruitment has been fundamental to our success in developing China as a market. Having a basic understanding of Chinese culture and demonstrating this understanding and your respect for the ways in which things are done through the way you behave yourself in everyday situations, and in the way you do business, is key to creating the guanxi from which successful and long-lasting business relationships and partnerships develop.

What are the most important factors in attracting Chinese students in the age of Covid-19?

The most important factors are showing empathy and understanding for the concerns that students, parents and agents have surrounding safety and security issues, and then being able to address those concerns with tangible solutions. Students want to study abroad and many would be prepared to take the small risk involved currently but parents are the ultimate decision makers since they are financing it and they won’t take any risks where their children are concerned. Consequently, we have to satisfy the parents that not only will we provide an excellent educational experience for their children but that we can also guarantee their safety and well-being. We need the external factors such as transportation and visa processing to be available too.

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.

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.

China travel market update 21 September ’20

China’s domestic travel market is recovering strongly so far. Travel data analysts Forward Keys report that domestic arrivals reached 86% of 2019’s level in the second week of August, while domestic flight bookings hit 98%, with most bookings for travel in the same month.

Over 90% of China’s hotels and attractions are open. The Greater China hotel market is picking up at speed with destinations including Shanghai and Sanya, on popular tropical holiday island Hainan, showing a significant rebound in occupancy levels. And in further Chinese holiday island news, Macao has launched a promotional campaign to attract more mainland Chinese visitors to spur the recovery of the local economy.

China’s theme parks are booming [paywall] as the global restrictions on travel encourage the population to look for holiday experiences closer to home. China has around 160 large-scale theme parks ranging from international brands like Shanghai Disneyland to home-grown offerings such as Wuhan’s Happy Valley and Kunming’s Colourful Yunnan Paradise, with many more in development.

Hainan Airlines is operating charter flights from Chongqing to Manchester to bring new and returning Chinese students to the UK for the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year.

Meanwhile China’s August retail sales recorded an increase of +5% year-on-year, the first growth since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. And China’s luxury market is thriving, partly driven by displacement of sales which would have taken place on overseas trips. Tiffany & Co reports retail sales up by +90% year-on-year in China in April and May. And new food experiences remain popular. New York’s lively burger bar brand Shake Shack opened its first outlet in Beijing in August and was met by queues around the block, despite pouring rain.

Quarantine rules remain in force for international arrivals, although it is expected that travel corridors are being negotiated with other Asian countries in preparation for Golden Week.

Restarting tourism in Europe; what can we learn from China?

China is finally starting to emerge from lockdown and take its first steps to restart travel and tourism throughout the country. Can Europe learn anything from China’s experience as we look ahead to a time when we too can think about reopening our museums, lifting travel restrictions, and welcoming visitors once more to our national parks?

Wuhan is where the story began, and 80 days after lockdown started, the city is now finally beginning to lift some restrictions, and open borders. The metro is running again and retail businesses and shopping centres are being reopened in a staged approach from this week, to try to reinvigorate some spending among residents. However, as far as travel goes, there are strict regulations still in place. Visitors to Wuhan are required to report how they have travelled and their reasons for coming. Hotel guests are having their temperatures checked twice a day for signs of the virus. They are required to show a code on a smartphone app which tracks their health status and where they have travelled. If you want to board a bus, you also have to show your smartphone health code to a volunteer. Tracking via technology is a vital part of the city’s strategy in coming out of lockdown.

Wuhan Tianhe International Airport has also reopened following a 76-day closure. According to the aviation data platform, Variflight, Chengdu, Guangdong and Hainan are the most popular destinations for flights now departing from Wuhan. It’s all about the domestic market and will be for some time.

Attractions reopening

According to the government, Hubei province, including Wuhan, has opened more than 40 natural outdoor attractions to the public since the beginning of April. To try to control spread of COVID-19, all attractions have adopted e-ticketing with tickets available via WeChat as well as Online Travel Agents. Tourist flows are controlled through time slots, with daily flow limits in place. Tourists are required to socially distance to 2 metres and to wear a mask during their visit. Tourist attractions which focus on indoor visits remain closed for now.

National holiday boosts domestic tourism

The Qingming Festival is a three day holiday which took place over the first weekend of April. It is an important festival in the Chinese calendar, when people pay tribute to the deceased and visit the graves of their ancestors. It is a popular weekend for domestic travel and getting together with friends and family. During this year’s festival, more parks and scenic attractions reopened across the country amid tight restrictions. Visitor limits were set (and quickly reached, leading to the closure of some attractions). Temperature checks were made on every visitor and health codes shown.

Some early data is now emerging in China on domestic tourism statistics. Qunar and Trip.com are reporting signs of recovery in the domestic market and an increase in booking volumes for transportation tickets, hotels and scenic attractions. According to the ‘2020 Qingming bank holiday market recovery report’ issued by Fliggy, bookings for train tickets and scenic spots during the Qingming holiday were up 100% during the week. Hotel bookings are also starting to show recovery as are city tours and high speed trains. Liang Jianzhang, co-founder and chairman of Trip.com Group has been expressing cautious positivity, saying

“I am optimistic about the recovery of domestic tourism. People have accumulated a strong desire to consume”

According to the China Tourism Academy, during the Qingming Festival there were 43,254 domestic trips, and ticket sales on attractions on Trip.com increased by 114% vs the previous month. These are not large figures, but they are a start. Unsurprisingly, short tours, and self drive were the most popular methods of travel.

What can we learn from China?

At this point, it is important to watch and learn. As attractions open up, it is inevitable that we will see mistakes being made and successes being delivered. It was widely reported that, as soon as Huangshan National Park in Anhui Province opened its gates over the Qingming Festival weekend, it was inundated with visitors and forced to close as social distancing rules could not be adhered to. The attraction had offered free entry in order to stimulate demand. On reflection, probably an unnecessary and potentially damaging decision. 

Shanghai Disneyland is now expected to reopen on 15th April moving the date forward from June. This follows a phased reopening of certain areas which has been going on for a number of weeks, which started with resort hotels, shopping and dining areas with reduced opening hours and a limited capacity. This phased approach may be adopted by many major attractions around the world and theme park executives will be watching closely to see how things progress in Shanghai.

There is clearly a pent up demand in China for travel, tourism and entertainment. But caution and concern over health and safety will continue for some time. In Beijing, indoor attractions remain closed, but restaurants and shopping malls are open again. But that has not marked a return to normality. The restaurants are quiet, with people reluctant to sit near each other or to socialize as they would have done before coronavirus. Tourist attractions throughout the world can learn from China. They must be bold, and willing to face up to what might be an unwelcome reality of consumer behaviour for the next year. However much we might want to enjoy domestic and international travel once again, we will require reassurances, hygiene policies, effective visitor management and reliable health screening checks, in order to return to attractions with confidence.