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.

First ever Chinese Student Society VIP Fam Trip arrives in Brighton and Hove

The first ever VIP Fam Trip for senior members of the UK’s Chinese Student Societies takes place in Brighton and Hove this weekend.


The pilot project, organised by specialist PR and Marketing agency, China Travel Outbound, aims to raise the city’s profile within the Chinese student communities studying here in the UK, and with their friends and family in China. Presidents and Vice-Presidents of the Chinese Student Societies from five UK universities will enjoy a weekend as guests of VisitBrighton, sharing their experiences through their Societies’ social media networks, communication channels and through word of mouth with their fellow students. They will also be encouraged to give their own opinions of the attractions, hotels and restaurants they visit on China’s influential social media review sites, the Chinese equivalents of TripAdvisor.

There are around 130,000 students from mainland China and Hong Kong studying in the UK, making the UK one of the most popular countries in the world for overseas study. During their degrees, students explore the UK beyond their university towns, often accompanied by their parents or friends who take the opportunity to visit the UK during their studies. Chinese students are also excellent ambassadors for the UK, sharing their experiences with their friends back home using social media, both whilst they are here and upon their return to China.

Helena Beard, Managing Director of China Travel Outbound, said,

Whilst most of our PR and marketing campaigns are delivered in China, we have been keen to explore the opportunity offered by the Chinese students already in the UK. Chinese social media is very influential but it is difficult for UK destinations, hotels and attractions to achieve cut-through with limited budgets. By approaching the Presidents of the influential Chinese Societies as we would the media we hope to deliver positive social reach to highly targeted audiences in an accessible way.

Julia Gallagher, Head of Sales, VisitBrighton, said,

VisitBrighton is committed to targeting the Chinese market which is hugely important to the city, and the student market is one of the sectors we are keen to reach. Brighton is a natural choice for Chinese millennials seeking unique shopping experiences, delicious food and a vibrant cultural scene. We just need to raise our profile so they know we are here.’


Delegates from King’s College London, University of Birmingham, Lancaster University, Bournemouth University and the University of the West of England will be in Brighton 24th – 26th March ‘17. They will enjoy meals at the award-winning vegetarian restaurant, Terre à Terre, and Brighton’s ever-popular seafood restaurant, The Regency Restaurant. Also on the itinerary are visits to the Royal Pavilion, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, the iconic Palace Pier and the towering British Airways i360.


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Chinese Lantern Festivals Light Up The UK

Lantern festivals and events are becoming more and more popular in the UK. We take a look at why that might be and the significance of lanterns to the Chinese.

Legend of the Lantern

What are lanterns? Where did they come from? How did they originate?  Obviously, lanterns are a light source that were previously used for illuminating spaces such as entranceways. They’re made with many materials but the most common ones in ancient China were paper and silk, perhaps with a wood or bamboo frame. And believe it or not, fireflies were also sometimes caught to be used as short-term lanterns.

So, they’re just used as light sources? Not entirely.

The tale goes like this. Once upon a time, sometime in 230 BC China, after Emperor Ming got a hold of Hindu scriptures he had a great temple built. He placed the scriptures and many paper lanterns in this temple as a way to symbolise the Buddha’s power. Paper lanterns have stood the test of time and still exist to this day bringing with them a host of other connotations, such as joy, celebration, good fortune and longevity; an object full of positive symbolism. It’s no wonder that people still use them.

So, how about sky lanterns? Well, this story begins in 3 BC China with historic figure Zhuge Liang. Liang was also known as Kongming so for the purposes of this story we’ll stick to Kongming. Kongming first used sky lanterns as a way to communicate with his troops. He found himself in a bad situation and needed to summon help against the enemy. Sky lanterns served their purpose in this situation and, funnily enough, this is how they obtained their alternative name ‘Kongming lanterns’.

Lighting the Festivals

If I said “Chinese lanterns” now, what would you think of? Would you think of either of these tales? I doubt it. Unless you’ve taken an extensive course in lantern history, in which case I applaud you.

But no, nowadays most people traditionally associate them with Chinese festivals.

Which festivals you ask? Number one: the Ghost Festival where people place lotus-shaped lanterns in rivers which are supposed to act as symbolic guides for their ancestors. Number two: the Lantern Festival where the lighting of many lanterns takes place to signal the lunar New Year celebration’s last day. Number three: the Mid-Autumn Festival where lanterns, which symbolise the sun and light, are used to celebrate the end of the harvest. And the last use, whilst not a festival, sees children take lanterns to temples to solve riddles on them in celebration of Chinese New Year.

West for the Winter

As was previously stated, lanterns are becoming more and more popular, so much so that the UK has seen a growth in lantern festivals.

Longleat’s Festival of Light is one of the UK’s earliest, and Europe’s largest, Chinese lantern festival, which transforms the Safari Park into a winter wonderland every year. Incredible, giant lanterns in all shapes and sizes can be seen there throughout the month of December into early January. As it’s a safari park, many of the lanterns come in animal form making it a spectacle to remember. The Magical Lantern Festival is another large Chinese festival making its debut in Roundhay Park, Leeds this year. Hosted in Europe’s largest city park, visitors can follow a trail around Roundhay Park and witness some of the most artistic and beautifully constructed lantern installations outside of China; lanterns which represent and celebrate Christmas, as well as Chinese culture and heritage.

What’s the reason for this growth in popularity? Well, a number of reasons could play into this. For the 380,000 Chinese people already living in the UK, it’s a reminder of their home and culture; a celebration of what’s important to them. China also provides one of the biggest numbers of new immigrants to the UK, with 40,000 Chinese migrants in 2014. Chinese lantern festivals would then have the purpose of welcoming and accommodating new migrants to their new home, providing them with a sense of comfort. The biggest reason, perhaps, may be to do with the British fascination for pretty lanterns, and the positive impact they bring for tourism. In the wintertime, stately homes and their gardens are probably not at their best; it’s cold, often wet and plants and shrubs lack colour. So what do they do to combat this? They usually hold ‘festive’ events that prominently feature lanterns and fairy lights, maybe with some ‘Christmas mulled wine’ or ‘winter hot chocolate’ included, in an effort to appeal to visitors. The beauty of the lanterns is a big draw as we move towards Christmas. We like to take festive-looking pictures and create magical moments with our family and, therefore, for the tourism industry, lanterns are great money-spinners. Also, the China outbound tourism market to Britain is growing with visits from China increasing 46% in 2015, making winter lantern events a great way to also accommodate to this growing market.

Some of the UK’s winter lantern events include Christmas at Kew, a winter trail throughout lantern-lit gardens, which is now in its fourth year. A botanical after dark experience awaits visitors; an experience boasting 60,000 patterned lights in the Tunnel of Lights. Similarly, Glow Wild at Wakehurst also offers a lantern-lit journey through the grounds and gardens of a spectacular Elizabethan mansion. As well as marvelling at the lanterns, visitors are able to absorb the architectural beauty of the mansion whilst enjoying marshmallows and hot chocolate. Events like these are found around the UK, each one displaying stunning light installations; another use it would seem for the historic Chinese lantern.

A beautiful tradition and, some would say, the more lanterns the better.


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Do parents visit during the year?

June – July, and December – January are the hot seasons for Chinese parents to visit their children’s graduation ceremonies. Chinese parents are more likely to visit the UK only once in their time at university for their children’s graduation ceremony. They normally stay around few days to two months. It depends on their work time.

How do Chinese students book their flight to their UK Universities?

There are two main ways for Chinese students to book their flights to their Universities: Chinese travel agencies and airlines. Baidu, tuniu and qyer are some of the most popular travel agencies in China, although there are a wide range of international travel agency websites in the market. Chinese students, however seem more comfortable to use the websites they are familiar with.

Do they stay in hotels booked from China? What do they do when they get to UK?

When it comes to travel abroad, Chinese parents tend to rely on their children about organising travel plan because of the language barrier and the cultural differences between China and the UK. Chinese students would usually organise hotels, flights as well as travel plans for their parents on Chinese travel agency websites. These websites occasionally offer some fixed package deals to attract customers e.g. a 14 day UK trip including around tickets, 13 night hotels and some UK attractions’ discount tickets.

In addition, one of the features of these websites are blogs of travellers who share their unique travel plans about where they shop, eat and visit in the UK. Also, there are some recommendations about hotels and flights. It can give the consumers some ideas about where to bring their parents to visit.

It is a must to visit all the attractions and main shopping centres in the UK (Big Ben, London Bridge, British Museum, Oxbridge Universities, Oxford Bicester Village, London Burberry outlet etc) but always with their children. Parents who have children studying in the UK would definitely visit.

Considerations when choosing places to visit

When considering places, price is not the most important factor. Reviews and recommendations in Chinese have far greater reach.

In terms of eating out, Chinese families visiting would often eat from Chinese restaurants, as many do not like the typical dishes served, especially the cold dishes, and would rather eat familiar foods.

Despite this, visiting Chinese families would often try food recommended in blogs and reports, including famous establishments like Burger & Lobster, Duck & Waffle, both in London and Riddle & Finns in Brighton.

In conclusion, it seems that Chinese students’ preferences and advice from Chinese travel agencies’ blogs are the main factors which influence Chinese parents’ travel plans in the UK.


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