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.

China travel market update 20 November ‘20

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

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

China-Southeast Asia travel bubbles opening

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

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

A return to explosive shopping?

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

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

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

How to do business in China: the importance of guanxi

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

Who you know is more important than what you know

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

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

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

Creating your own guanxi

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

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

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

How to do business in China

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

  1. Have a trusted local partner

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

  • Get introductions

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

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

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

Many cross-cultural challenges in business

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

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

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

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

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.

Post-pandemic revenge travel takes to the skies in China’s Golden Week

Thousands of years ago China’s emperors worshipped the moon for bountiful harvests, and on 1 October Chinese people believe that the moon is at its very brightest and fullest. China’s landscapes are dotted with lanterns to light the way to good luck, and across the nation people give mooncakes, rich pastries filled with sweet-bean or lotus-seed paste, as gifts in the week-long Mid-Autumn Festival.

China’s Mid-Autumn Festival this year coincides with National Day on 1 October, creating an eight day Golden Week holiday which is widely seen as a test for China’s post-pandemic bounceback. In mid-September, online travel booking website Qunar was forecasting that the total number of domestic flights over the holiday would surpass 15 million, a ten per cent increase on 2019. Lower ticket prices, promotions and curbs on international travel are all contributing to this surge in domestic traffic.

Chinese domestic tourism reaching last year’s levels?

Mid-September had already seen the first sales figures showing tourism growth year-on-year. China’s hotel occupancy rates in the week to 12th September stood at +9% against last year; this marked the first year-on-year increase since the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile Alibaba-backed online travel platform Fliggy announced that hotel and airline bookings made in the week to 15th September outsold those made last year.

There is plenty of confidence in the domestic market. China’s largest mainland hotel operator  Huazhu has unveiled plans to open more than 1,600 new hotels this year and has just raised HK$6.07 billion (USD783 million) with a second listing in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Hauzhu is aiming for a total of 10,000 hotels in China by 2023. And Hampton by Hilton has just signed its 500th property in China.

The Red Dragon’s economic recovery

It’s increasingly clear that there’s plenty of pent-up demand in China. Restaurants, hotels and airports are busy again. Luxury spend is bouncing back. Expenditure from China’s middle income segment is not far behind, with compact cars following luxury models in seeing sales rise to near last year’s levels.

In fact, The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development’s recent reforecast for China predicts that the country will experience growth of +1.7% this year. This would make it the only member of the G20 to see positive economic output in 2020. Prompt initial action against Covid-19 positioned China for a quicker recovery than many nations, and the OECD’s forecast of growth of +8% next year suggests a speeding uptick in spending.

Revenge spending and revenge travel

The recent surge in household expenditure has been characterised as “revenge spending” as Chinese people celebrate surviving the fear and death of the pandemic. Golden Week is the first real opportunity for “revenge travel” and all indications point to a population increasingly comfortable with ‘the new normal’ and willing to travel. Complaints on online forums about sold-out hotels and tourist attractions abound, and traffic analysis indicates plenty of China’s traditional Golden Week jams on major routes.

Winners of the Golden Week visitor numbers lottery so far include Sanya on China’s holiday island Hainan, with reported waits for check-in up to 40 minutes in recent days. Even in August, Sanya Phoenix International airport in Hainan was reporting arrivals up +4% year-on-year. Macau relaxed its entry requirements for mainland tourists on 23 September, just in time for Golden Week. On the mainland, weekend hotel availability is limited in many cities.

Travel in the age of coronavirus

To help meet this increasing demand, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism allowed tourist attractions and scenic sites to increase their capacity to 75% for Golden Week. In the age of coronavirus, this is of course combined with pre-booking, temperature checks, mask-wearing and social distancing protocols, helping both visitors and attractions to find new levels of reassurance of safety in travel.

The Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute compares the post-pandemic recovery to that which took place after the 2008 Wenchan earthquake in Sichuan. The Wenchan earthquake survivors showed similar inclinations towards revenge travel as they wanted experiences to bring them joy post-trauma. Elements which will help in the era of coronavirus include not just implementing anti-Covid 19 measures but effectively communicating them too.

China’s travel future

Traditionally one of the busiest times to travel in China, 782 million holidays were taken over Golden Week last year, and more than 7 million people travelled abroad. While 2020 levels may not quite reach these dizzying heights, China’s travel sector is unquestionably picking up. More than 90% of attractions are open, and so are over 75% of travel agents. While some of this is discount-driven, Chinese travellers’ increasing comfort with trip-taking bodes well for the future.

Professor Dr Wolfgang George Arlt of the Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute is confident that mainland China will remain the no 1 international tourism source market for many years to come. Economic and demographic developments, a growing middle class, more openness and increased ease of travel, and the easing or removal of visa restrictions will all contribute.

As Chinese tourists’ previously constrained holiday ideas take flight in the Middle Kingdom, interest in overseas destinations is rising too. While quarantine remains in force for international arrivals (including returning Chinese nationals), many tourism brands are maintaining awareness in the market through smart digital initiatives.

We can help maintain and increase your visibility to China’s travellers ready for the restart of international travel. Don’t let your competitors get ahead of you when the Chinese start booking overseas travel again. Contact us for a no obligation chat now.

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.

The Chinese Global Study Tour Phenomenon

What is a global study tour, who goes on them, and why are they so vital to the future of UK inbound Tourism?

As the world emerges from the coronavirus crisis, competition to reach the top of the desirable destination list amongst Chinese outbound tourists is going to be fierce. This autumn, the whole world will be fighting for its share of this huge and lucrative market, encouraging the Chinese to return for Golden Week, Chinese New Year, the May National Holiday and, of course, Summer 2021. 

The UK will be part of this race and I am sure we will do well, with our fantastic tourism products and strong China Welcome. However, there is one very important sector where we have very real potential to excel and surpass the competition if we just pay attention and understand the opportunity, and that is the global study tour market.

What is the global study tour market?

A global study tour is a trip abroad made by a school-aged child for the purpose of learning. There are four main categories of global study tour:

  1. The most common type of global study tour involves a group of children visiting a foreign country to learn something (usually the language) with some elements of sightseeing as part of the itinerary.
  2. ‘Camp education’ is common in the States, where students stay in a camp and confine their activities to the camp and its surrounding areas. The content is around education, with most courses offering a theme; sport, art, science, technology are all popular. Many of the summer schools favoured by high-achieving students applying to America’s best universities offer campsite programmes.
  3. A third option is the ‘School immersion’ tour, where the student has a curriculum based experience within a foreign school or university.
  4. The fourth type is aimed at students with a clear ambition to study abroad in the future. This type of study tour aims at enhancing the actual university application and is intended to give the student the best chance of success.

How big is the market and how much is worth?

Like all Chinese travel sectors, it’s big and it’s growing. According to iResearch data in 2018, the number of people who participated in a global study tour was 1.05 million, with an estimated forecast growth rate in the global study tour / camp education market of around 20%. Of course, the coronavirus will interrupt this growth in 2020. The per customer transaction ranges from around £2,300 up to £5,800 and the estimated size of the global study tour and global camp education market in China is around RMB 94.6 billion (£10.5 billion).

Size of Chinese global study tour market
Image : iResearch

Image: iResearch

The market is still relatively immature. The penetration of the study tour industry is reported to be low at around 16%, and distribution is still fragmented, with a large number of tour operators having small shares of the market. For example, New Oriental, one of the leading players in this field, has only a 1-2% market share and most of the companies in the sector are SMEs with revenues below RMB 10 million (iResearch, 2018).

The biggest growth is forecast to be seen in the primary school sector.

The expectation is that although the biggest sector of students undertaking global study tours is currently those at secondary school age, the biggest growth is forecast to be seen in the primary school sector. This reflects the population development of young children since the lifting of the one child policy in China.

Why are global study tours so popular in China?

The Chinese middle classes are looking beyond day to day work and family life, and seeking richer cultural experiences, self-improvement, culture, entertainment and, very importantly, education. Travel is an investment in the future of their children and is often undertaken as a way to educate further, and to check out possible options for future overseas high school and/or university education. Travel broadens the mind, but it also offers the practical purpose of competitive advantage on a university application form. And all this in the context of the child who is still unlikely to have many siblings and certainly no cousins to compete with for the discretionary spend of the doting grandparent. What better way to spend your money than investing in your grandchild’s education?

What is the opportunity for the UK?

The most popular places to travel to for global study tours are United Kingdom, USA, Japan, Australia, France, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Thailand and Switzerland (Tuniu.com, 2019 Summer Global Study Tour Trends Report). According to C Trip, South East Asia is seeing strong and rapid growth over the last two years which Zhao Yao, C Trip’s Study Tour director attributes to low prices and a proliferation of European and American teachers working in South East Asia, offering great value access to language education. South East Asia also offers the benefit of volunteer work, especially on environmental projects.

One of the most popular reasons for embarking on a global study tour is to prepare the child for a future at an overseas university…”

One of the most popular reasons for embarking on a global study tour is to prepare the child for a future at an overseas university and, it remains the case that the USA, the UK and Australia lead the way in welcoming Chinese students at their universities. And this is the real opportunity for the United Kingdom. 

According to The Guardian, in 2019, applications from Chinese students to study at UK universities increased by 30% year on year, and Chinese students are now the largest group of international students in the UK’s universities. But the opportunity is bigger still and, like many things in China, it comes down to politics.

The trade war with the USA and the poor relationship with President Trump are driving Chinese tourists and students away from America. At the same time, China’s relations with Australia are also deteriorating, with arguments over trade tariffs and anger from Beijing over Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the origination and handling of the coronavirus by China. 

Chinese people are hugely influenced by politics and the direction of their President. Any further breakdown in Sino-American and Sino-Australian relations leaves a path open for the United Kingdom to welcome more and more Chinese study groups and students to our shores.

What are the challenges?

So what does the UK need to do to maximise on this opportunity? Our team in Beijing has been speaking to two of the major players in this market and you can read the full interviews here. In summary, the agents are willing to hear from the UK and believe in the destination. They identify the most important priorities are to increase the options for study beyond the pure language courses, to focus on the promotion of our cultural heritage in order to compete with more famous attractions of the USA, to expand our promotion of the regions, universities and cities beyond London, to find ways to compete on price with the States, and to improve communication of product, benefits and tours to the Chinese travel trade, through marketing, sales missions, roadshows and trade communication.  It is also important for our top museums and attractions to create bespoke tours and products which can be offered flexibly as part of the study tours, and that they have Mandarin speaking staff who are able to deliver educational tours to the children on-site. If our attractions can make it easier for the Chinese tour operators to work with them during the summer months, and can deliver a really world-class service to these study tour groups, the demand from the Chinese travel trade is real and valuable. 

It is clear that the United Kingdom has some way to go in terms of product development and communication of our study tour offering, but the opportunity is real and ours for the taking. I hope the pause that has resulted from the Coronavirus crisis will offer our museums and attractions an opportunity to redevelop their offering, communicate with the Chinese specialist operators, and prepare for the inevitable surge in interest for Chinese study tours arriving next summer. It is an opportunity they would be foolish to ignore.

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.

How will the coronavirus impact the UK inbound tourism market?

This article appeared on the UK travel website, Travelmole, on 27th January 2019: By Helena Beard

Whilst we may have been treated to good luck greetings, lion dancing shows and beautiful Chinese New Year decorations over this weekend, for our colleagues in China, things have been very different. 

Our Chinese staff closed the Beijing office last Thursday, dispersing throughout Asia to welcome the Year of the Rat with their families. At the same time, millions of people did the same, travelling both domestically and internationally to take advantage of the national holiday running from 24-30 January. Within a matter of hours, the severity of the Coronavirus started to become clear and the city of Wuhan was on lockdown. On Friday, the Chinese authorities announced that all group tours or ‘flight plus accommodation’ packages departing after Monday 27th January should be cancelled by travel agents free of charge. Anyone wishing to cancel their flight may also do so without penalty. No more group tours will be booked until the advice changes.

So how concerned should we be as an industry? Our clients are UK and European hotels, attractions, destinations and travel brands. They depend upon their visitors from China, now the biggest and most valuable source travel market in the world. What impact will this have and what should we be doing in response?

The most obvious place to look for clues about the future is to return to the past, and to SARS, another coronavirus. The SARS virus also originated in China and the outbreak lasted around six months from late 2002 to mid 2003. It resulted in 8,000 cases and 774 people died. There have since been other similar coronaviruses, such as MERS-CoV, which developed in Saudi Arabia in 2012. 

SARS had a big effect on outbound tourism from China (and more markedly on inbound tourism to Asia), but there are some very important differences 18 years later.

China has learnt from SARS

The response to the outbreak of the current 2019 – nCoV virus has been incredibly swift and efficient compared to the response to SARS. Back in 2003, a full three months passed after the first case before the SARS virus was reported to the WHO. This new virus was reported to WHO just three weeks after the first reported case. Beijing is being a lot more open about the situation and sharing information globally in an effort to curtail the spread.

The city of Wuhan was swiftly put on lockdown, followed by another 12 cities, researchers have already published their analysis of the virus, and diagnostic tools are in place for testing at all China’s airports. They are also being used at airports around the world. There is a dedicated 1,000 bed hospital being built in Hubei province which, it is said, will be completed within just six days.

This is China

Probably the most comforting aspect about this virus is that it has originated in China. The authoritarian nature of China means that, when Beijing decides something needs to happen, it will happen, quickly, without bureaucracy and with compliance. China’s technology leads the world, and the country’s unparalleled technical and human resources can deliver a speedy and efficient response to a crisis like no other. An instruction from the government will be followed without question. The national holiday has already been extended to 2ndFebruary and schools will remain closed. People will work from home. Life, and business, will go on.

Prepare for a surge in demand

In 2002, 16.6 million Chinese travelled internationally. In 2003, the year of SARS, this figure increased to 20.2m. In 2004, the year after SARS, the figure jumped by 8 million people to 28.9m, showing the resilience of this market. The outbound visitor numbers then continued to grow exponentially, reaching over 150 million last year. 

I have worked in travel for 25 years and can’t remember the number of reassuring conversations I have had about the ‘pent up demand’ which follows any event with a tourism impact. But there is no market which is more likely to explode with pent up demand than the Chinese market. This is a nation which believes travel is key to success. For the young, it offers vital education. For the 400 million plus millennials, it delivers status and an investment in their future. For the middle aged, it is a vital life experience, and one which was denied to them in their youth. For President Xi, arguably the biggest influencer in the world, it is a fundamental part of his strategy to establish China as a global superpower. This is why Beijing is supporting route development throughout the globe, opening up the skies and supporting new flights from China’s Tier One, Tier Two and even Tier Three cities. Connectivity is key to success. And remember, if President Xi wants it, it will happen.

On a more practical level, on the instructions of the authorities, the travel agents have cancelled all trips free of charge. Airlines are also allowing free flight changes and cancellations. That money will all be coming back into the pockets of experience-hungry Chinese tourists. They aren’t going to bank it or spend it on home improvements or a new car. They will already be planning for their first opportunity to rebook.

For those interested in the UK and Europe, the next opportunity for many will be the summer. Given the speed of response, and the experience of history, we can predict that, hopefully, this current virus will be contained well before the summer months. The Chinese do their holiday research early but they book late, within around 6-8 weeks of travel, so there is plenty of time before the summer peak.

My best advice to tourism businesses is to use this time to prepare. Find your Mandarin speaking guides, translate your orientation materials, get your WeChat Pay and AliPay implemented, work your trade networks, and prepare your press releases, sales materials and social content, because this will pass and, when it does, that pent up demand is going to hit. Big style.

Video interview: ‘The life of a Chinese student in the U.K’

Chinese student in the U.K

The UK is one of the most popular places in the world for Chinese students seeking education abroad; in fact, it is estimated that there are around 130,000 Chinese undergraduates and postgraduates studying in the UK, with numbers growing every year.

So what draws Chinese students to the UK? What do they like to do here and what places to they like to visit?

We sat down with University of Sussex student, Joanna, to discuss what it is that brings Chinese Students to the U.K, how they like to travel and what student life is like in a foreign country.

If you’d like to find out more about how the Chinese travel and decide on where to visit, be sure to check out some of our other related articles:

Why are the Chinese going Nordic? – Part 1: Norway

Top 7 Apps Chinese Outbound Tourists Use Overseas – Part 1: Getting Around

Top 7 Apps Chinese Outbound Tourists Use Overseas – Part 2: Discovery

Music Credits:

‘Dawn’ – Sappheiros