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 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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10 reasons to invest in the Chinese travel market

The outbound market from China is not just the biggest source travel market in the world, it is also growing at an extraordinary rate. Whilst destinations, attractions and hotels have long since dedicated funds and resources to attracting visitors from Europe and North America, many are yet to market themselves in China. We’ve pulled together some big numbers, so read on to find out why you can’t afford to allow your travel brand to be left behind in the race for this lucrative market.

  1. It’s the largest outbound travel market in the world and the Chinese are travelling long haul too.

120 million Chinese people travelled overseas in 2015.

2.5 million Chinese tourists visited the USA in 2015 and 2 million visited France. China is the 2nd largest market for tourists to Australia and Bali and it’s the 5th largest market to the USA. The US State Department forecasts that Chinese travellers to the USA will be over 7 million by 2020.

In Q2 2016, for the first time, more Chinese tourists travelled outside Greater China than within it (Greater China = Hong Kong, Macau & Taiwan).

  1. And it’s still growing.

The number of Chinese outbound tourists is forecast to nearly double to 220 million by 2020. And China’s outbound travel spend is forecast to reach US$255 billion by 2025, twice that of the USA. Just in Q2 2016 Chinese travel agencies organised 13.72 million trips, an increase of +17% y-o-y.

Only 4% of the Chinese population has a passport but around 10 million new passports are issued every year.

  1. China is one of the top 10 most valuable inbound markets to the UK.

Nearly 270,000 Chinese visited the UK last year, an increase of +47% y-o-y. They spent £586 million, an increase of +18% y-o-y. ¾ of Chinese tourists departing the UK are ‘very likely’ or ‘extremely likely’ to recommend Britain for a holiday or short break.

The number of Chinese tourists coming to the UK has more than doubled since 2006 while total spend has multiplied by more than 5 times.

  1. The expanding middle class millennials spend a lot, travel independently, and are confident.

50% of China’s outbound tourists are millennials (those aged 15-29). There are 315 million Chinese in this age bracket and they will be joined by a further 74 million college graduates in the next 10 years.

74% of Chinese millennials feel they have more in common with their age group globally than with other Chinese people. They expect to spend US$4,362 on luxury goods in 2015. 66% pick Western brands over Asian luxury brands.

  1. China is forecast to be the first trillion-dollar aviation market.

Boeing delivered a record number of aeroplanes (200) to China in 2015 – the most it has ever delivered to a single market in one year. China’s passenger traffic rose 11.4% to 485 million passenger trips in 2015 and Boeing forecasts 6.4% annual growth in passenger traffic over the next 20 years.

In 2014, there were 396 international air routes from China. In 2015, there were 460. In 2016, there are 574.

  1. And air links between China and the UK are increasing.

In June 2016 Beijing-Manchester, the first direct air link between China and the North of England, launched. In August, BA agreed a codeshare with China Eastern which adds Kunming, Nanjing, Xi’an, Hangzhou and Chongqing to their route map. There are also rumours that Hainan Airlines are looking at direct routes from China to Ireland and Scotland.

  1. It’s easier to get a visa to visit the UK. Which should make a big difference.

The duration of the standard visitor visa for the Chinese was extended from 6 months to 2 years’ multiple entry at the beginning of 2016 and it’s easier for Chinese to apply for a UK visa too, since the mobile fingerprinting service has been extended from 9 to 50 cities. The UK already has more visa application centres in China than any other EU nation. Improving access to destinations for the Chinese has historically yielded a visitor increase of +20%.

  1. Chinese tourists are the biggest holiday spenders. They spend $74 million A DAY in the USA.

A Chinese tourist’s average holiday spend is nearly £1,900. Chinese tourists account for 30% of global luxury spending and 41% of Chinese tourists will take an extra suitcase on holiday just to accommodate their purchases.

40% of Chinese consumers’ luxury spending occurs overseas. In 2014, 2.18mn Chinese visited the USA and spent US$2.1 billion. The US State Department forecasts that Chinese travellers to the USA will be over 7 million by 2020 and they’ll spend over US$85 billion. Chinese tourists spent US$74 million every day in the USA in 2015. 

  1. It’s not just a group market.

Independent travel is the fastest-growing sector of Chinese outbound tourism. In 2014 over 70% of Chinese outbound tourists booked and paid for their trips themselves (rather than paying for organised tours).

  1. And if you want to sell to them, they’re waiting for you online.

More Chinese go online via their mobile ‘phones than Americans, Brazilians and Indonesians combined. More than 700 million Chinese are online and China’s online retail market is the biggest in the world.

To find out more about how to start marketing your travel or tourism brand to the Chinese, contact Helena Beard or Julie Withers at China Travel Outbound for a no obligation chat, or click here to read more of our articles about Chinese tourism.

With thanks to our sources:



















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The Chinese outbound traveller

A quick google search on the Chinese outbound traveller will produce a plethora of reports on the size and nature of this new emerging market.

The reason for this explosion of interest is not surprising.  According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, the Chinese are now the world’s biggest spenders on international tourism,   splashing out $102 billion in 2012—a 40% increase on the previous year.

Dig a little deeper and you will find some interesting myth busting facts too.  Yes, the Chinese are big spenders.  According to Visit Britain the Chinese are among the top three spenders when they visit Britain, spending an average of £405 per head.  But did you know that Independent travel is more popular than group travel? According to Hotels.com’s second annual Chinese International Travel Monitor survey results suggests that 62% of Chinese travellers prefer to travel independently.  This appears to be backed up by hoteliers who reported that 70% of their Chinese guests were not in groups, a 20% increase on the previous year.

So which ever report you read (and  I warn you there are quite a few to choose from!)  the evidence is clear.  The challenge is how do you react to this rapidly emerging market?  Perhaps you are wondering why your competitors appear to more effective than you in tapping into this market, there are 5 areas that I suggest you start to think about:

1. Is your website available in the Chinese language?  Don’t worry about the difference
between Cantonese and Mandarin, the two different dialects share the same written form.

2. How is your website ranked on China’s premier search engine Baidu.com?  If your website is only available in English, the answer is probably not very well.

3. What is your social media presence like in China?  If you think Facebook and Twitter will do it for you, I am afraid you will need to think again…., these sites are heavily restricted in China.  The closest equivalents are called Renren and Weibo.

4. Do you have a PR agency to ensure that the media, and in particular the travel trade media, are promoting your products and services into the Chinese market?

5. Do you have a sales representation team ready to promote you to the travel trade?  There are 10 different travel trade shows in China alone.  There is a very good chance your competitors are there, and if they’re not, there’s a great chance for you to steal a march on them.

Perhaps you have already thought about all the above (and could add a further five items to this list!)  but you don’t know where to start.  China Travel Outbound would love to help you.

For more information or a quote, please contact Helena Beard at [email protected]


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