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.

British Airways i360 appoints China Travel Outbound to manage Chinese marketing campaign

British Airways i360 has appointed specialist Chinese travel PR and representation agency, China Travel Outbound, to promote Brighton & Hove’s best views to the Chinese market.

The 530ft viewing tower is the highest on the South Coast and welcomes over 300,000 visitors per year from the UK and all over the world. China Travel Outbound has been tasked with improving the profile of the attraction on Chinese travel platforms, and delivering content online through Chinese social media.  This activity will augment and complement the work already being delivered by the agency in China for VisitBrighton.

The agency has also been asked to explore ways to connect more effectively with the growing Chinese student population attending the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton.

Helena Beard, Managing Director, China Travel Outbound, said, ‘Brighton’s popularity in China is on the rise, with its huge appeal for millennials, FIT travelers, families and the buoyant international student market. British Airways i360 is the city’s most visited paid attraction and it is very important that its Chinese profile reflects that position. Our goal is that every Chinese tourist visiting the South Coast should have a flight on BA i360 on their itinerary.’

Anna Prior, Head of Marketing, British Airways i360 said: ‘As part of our international marketing campaign we are keen to increase the awareness of BAi360 and Brighton in the Chinese market. We have already welcomed many Chinese visitors to the attraction, but we know the market has great potential. We’re excited to have appointed China Travel Outbound; its expertise in the Chinese tourism market will provide us with the in-depth knowledge and promotion we require’.

For further information about China Travel Outbound, please visit www.chinatraveloutbound.com

For further information about British Airways i360, please visit www.britishairwaysi360.com

7 steps to hotel heaven

The Chinese outbound travel market is not just the largest in the world – it also grew by 12% in 2016. Chinese tourists outspend and outshop all other tourists. And yet many hotels are missing out on this valuable market, because they think either that Chinese tourists are difficult to cater for, or that they all travel in large groups and stay in mid-market chain hotels on the unfashionable outskirts of cities.

But the Chinese market has moved on, and Chinese tourists are increasingly seeking out stylish independent hotels. And you’ll be pleased to hear that making your hotel Chinese-friendly doesn’t require big investment or massive changes – just a few tweaks to your offering, core information translated into Mandarin and some understanding of cultural norms can make you a great proposition to this market. Here’s our list of 7 great ways to make your hotel appealing to the Chinese …

1. Food: it’s not just about congee and chopsticks

Just a few short years ago, congee was widely touted as the ‘must have’ breakfast for Chinese tourists overseas. But these days food tourism is on the rise among Chinese millennials, and genuine local cuisine is an important part of the holiday experience. From Brighton’s Regency restaurant to The Plough at Cadsden, host of Prime Minister Cameron and President Xi Jinping’s fish and chip dinner in 2015, restaurants of all types are welcoming the modern Chinese tourist.

Make both first-time overseas travellers and millennials happy by offering a local hot breakfast option and having hot water available. Be ready to recommend local restaurants and regional cuisine too. From shortbread in Scotland to oysters in Brighton, Chinese food tastes are evolving beyond rice and dim sum.

2. Authentic experiences make you more attractive

While non-Chinese hotel chains such as Hilton and Kempinski are learning the value of adapting their product to Chinese tastes in China, this is outweighed in overseas destinations by the demand for authentic local experiences. If they are memorable, exclusive and Instagrammable, all the better – there’s a reason that China is now the 4th largest source market for polar tourists.

Remember that the Chinese are rarely travelling for relaxation, rather to experience different cultures and see how other people live. Make sure you promote experiences which offer genuine insight into local life, as well as VIP trips. Chinese now make up the 2nd largest group on winery tours in Australia; if you have vineyards nearby, why not partner to offer VIP tours with paired wine tastings?

3. A little Mandarin goes a long way (to making your Chinese guests feel welcome)

It isn’t always practical to have Mandarin-speaking hotel employees, but offering menus and general hotel information in Mandarin goes a long way to making your Chinese guests feel welcome. It’ll reduce cultural misunderstandings and unanswerable queries too (unless your receptionists already have enough Mandarin to communicate the location of smoking areas and explain that breakfast takes place from 7am). Making core hotel information in Mandarin available by QR code will also tick an important technological Chinese box, as well as making it easier to update.

Small cultural gestures, such as accepting credit cards with two hands, and addressing the oldest person in the party first, are also greatly valued as signs of understanding. Rooms including the number 8 are a great choice for Chinese guests, since the number 8 is considered lucky. Conversely, don’t ever give Chinese guests rooms on the 4th floor or containing the number 4, since the number sounds like the word for death in Mandarin.

4. China UnionPay: a surefire way to increase revenue

China UnionPay is by far the preferred payment method for Chinese tourists. Accepting UnionPay shows your Chinese guests you are serious about their custom; according to Australia’s Commonwealth Bank, Chinese tourists are 20 times more likely to use a business which accepts China UnionPay. Your afternoon tea probably costs less than £50 per head, but it’s still worth noting that The Ritz saw spend by Chinese visitors increase by 25% in the first year it accepted UnionPay.

5. Delight your Chinese guests with free Wifi

Over 80% of Chinese share photos of their travels in social media – a figure which rises to over 90% amongst millennials. And over 70% of Chinese under 40 years old rely on social media for travel inspiration. So it makes sense to offer free Wifi: not only is it a great draw for visitors, it also allows them to share content which will help to promote your hotel and region to at-home Chinese looking for holiday ideas.

And there’s another reason for offering free Wifi; Ctrip and Qunar, China’s two largest travel sites, give great weight to free Wifi in their hotel rankings.

6. Style and heritage lift your hotel above the crowd

Boutique hotels are taking off in China and the growing number of independent travellers are looking for something more interesting than a standard mid-market chain hotel. Stylish architecture, on-trend interior design and local heritage are all attractive draws, especially to millennials seeking that perfect Instagrammable moment. Promote your local roots and what makes you unique, whether that’s local music heritage in Liverpool or links to Royalty in London.

7. Welcome multi-generational families

A growing trend in Chinese outbound travel is multi-generational travel, where sons and daughters bring their parents on overseas trips for a shared family experience. You already know to address the most senior member of the party first, and it turns out you can probably offer the ideal room arrangement too. Make it possible for multi-generational parties to book several rooms together; the old family rooms linked by internal doors turn out to be perfect for this, allowing Chinese family members to create a common meeting space when holidaying together.

So it turns out that just a few small changes will make your hotel Chinese-friendly – and they’re your first step into a virtuous circle whereby your Chinese guests will help your promotion by sharing their experiences on social media. But first you’ll need to make yourself known in China. Our next blog will look at the key steps to promoting your newly-China-friendly hotel to Chinese travellers and travel agents.

 

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The Chinese want to eat Chinese, right?

Dim sum, fish and chips or something entirely different – what would a Chinese traveller choose? That might sound like a silly question, but promoting a business efficiently to the rising Chinese outbound travel market requires consideration of Chinese tourists’ preferences and the barriers to sale. Many businesses have already caught on to this, with places like Bicester Village introducing Mandarin guides and signs to take away language barriers that may dishearten travellers. Hilton has introduced the Huanying Program to many of their hotels, which provides Chinese customers with a more personalised stay by including a larger range of traditionally Chinese breakfast options, adding jasmine tea to the guest rooms, and more.

While shopping evidently has a large appeal to Chinese tourists, food and quality meals are also important considerations. When it comes to hospitality, tea and coffee-making facilities rank the highest in importance of what they want in their hotel rooms. A Chinese traveller spends 59% of his/her budget (excluding accommodation) on food. Clearly, food is big business.  To help you market to this, we had a look at some food preferences amongst Chinese tourists.

So, which is it? Dim sum or fish and chips?

Actually, it’s oysters. At least that’s what the Chinese tour operators we hosted recently in Brighton seemed to favour when we took them to The Regency Restaurant. Besides plates and plates of oysters, other popular dishes included lobster, crab salad and mussels. Not only does this imply that seafood has great appeal for a nation with distant coastlines, it also shows a desire to indulge in foods beyond Chinese tradition.

Travellers want to experience the local cuisine for at least one of their daily meals.

Young Chinese tourists do indeed like to try the local cuisines of their chosen travel destination, just as our guests enjoyed seafood in Brighton. In fact, 34% of Chinese travellers prefer “independent hotels with local flavours,” again revealing a desire to try new food. In fact, “travellers want to experience the local cuisine for at least one of their daily meals.” What’s more, trying local cuisine has become proof of a traveller’s unique experiences abroad, as it is deemed “fashionable and desirable” for tourists to indulge in food that differs from that which they are accustomed to in China. Since President Xi Jinping shared a fish and chip supper with David Cameron at the British PM’s local pub, the popularity of this traditional seaside plate has grown exponentially with Chinese visitors to the UK.

Whilst there is a growing interest in trying new foods, there are a few rules which do still ring true for the majority. Hot drinks are more popular, especially in the winter. Our Chinese interns choose a cup of hot rather than cold water for the office drinks round, and hot breakfasts are always chosen by our team when they come to London from Beijing. Dairy products are not widely consumed; when serving tea or coffee, do not add the milk, but offer it on the side. Lamb is another favourite, and spicy flavours go down well, but these don’t have to be Chinese. Indian, Thai and Indonesian food are all popular.

While the desire to try local food is certainly prominent amongst younger Chinese travellers, the duration of a visitor’s stay, and their age, may change this. Those who stay abroad longer often miss the familiarity of Chinese food, and may resort back to it. Although tasting local foods is a praised experience, the comfort of home will often come beckoning. Similarly, travellers over the age of 35 will often prefer familiarity over new experiences, and are more likely to stick to traditional Chinese dishes.

Variety, variety, variety! (And a Mandarin menu might help too).

So what does all this mean? It means variety, and providing Chinese tourists with both local dishes and with a range of Asian-style foods for when they simply want a “taste of home.” If you cater more commonly to youth, then a selection of local dishes will do, but if you have older guests, then remember to include some recognisable dishes.

Another important, practical consideration is accessibility. Looking at a long menu written in English with a huge selection of different dishes (sometimes with ‘clever’ names), can be completely overwhelming. Having a Mandarin menu available is definitely favourable and it may be sensible to select a few dishes to present in Chinese as the ‘dishes most popular with our Chinese guests’. This allows the guest to choose something they know they will enjoy, whilst also saving any risk of losing ‘face’ by ordering a bizarre combination by mistake. It is also important to accept China Union Pay, because Chinese tourists “increasingly wish to use the same payment methods overseas as they do at home.” Essentially, both variety and accessibility are key watch words for marketing your hotel or restaurant to Chinese tourists.

To find out more about how you can appeal to Chinese tourists and their food preferences, contact us now for a no obligation chat. For more news and views on the Chinese tourism scene, please read our other articles or sign up to receive our newsletters.

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