Time to get serious about China

This article first appeared on the travel news website, Travel GBI.

Helena Beard, managing director of China Travel Outbound, on what the industry can do to capitalise on the increased interest in the UK among the Chinese travel trade.

Few people have had such an influence on UK tourism as President Xi Jinping. Following the Chinese leader’s visit to England in October 2015, there was a flurry of Chinese investment in our football clubs, hotels, housing developments and now, we hear, the humble Buckinghamshire pub where he shared a pint with David Cameron.

Other highlights of 2016 included the launch of the first direct flight from China to Manchester in June, the lifting of flight restrictions between the two countries in October, and the moment when we all sat up and listened; the release of the annual visitor stats. Chinese tourist visits in 2015 were up a massive 46% over the previous year, shooting China into the top 10 of the UK’s most valuable inbound markets.

More than 120 million people travelled overseas from China in 2015, a number forecast to hit 220 million by 2020. That means roughly one in 10 people travelling overseas is Chinese. The market will be worth an eye-watering $255 billion in the next 10 years, twice that of the US.

The UK currently attracts fewer than 300,000 of them. Place these stats against the backdrop of a weak pound, a relatively strong yuan, and a drop in popularity of continental Europe due to security fears, and never before has such an opportunity for UK inbound tourism been quite so obvious.

The lifting of flight restrictions and the ambitions of President Xi for improved connectivity have also led to an increase in services. In just the last two weeks, Hainan Airlines has announced new flight routes to the UK from five of China’s regional cities.

At a grassroots level, our team in Beijing is reporting an increased interest in the UK among Chinese travel trade and media contacts. They want to know more about Britain’s tourism proposition and are particularly interested in unique experiences beyond the established tourism trails.

While the royal palaces may always claim the number one spot on the to-do list, the market is becoming increasingly adventurous and independent and we are asked more and more about experiences and activities; weddings, restaurants, countryside pursuits, golf, and even British beer tasting. It is safe to say that in China right now, the UK is definitely trending.

So what are we as an industry doing to maximise this opportunity?

More than 300 tourism businesses have signed up to the VisitBritain Great China Welcome Charter, a programme developed in recognition of survey results showing that our ‘Chinese welcome’ needed improvement.

VisitBritain has also opened new offices in China and runs successful marketing campaigns to attract the growing affluent middle-classes to visit this distant island. Yes, they are doing a great job. But is it enough to sit back and rely on their efforts?

Let’s look at the US, a country welcoming two million visitors from China and expected to be the number one market within three years. Tourist boards, hotels and attractions in the US are investing in the Chinese market, running targeted campaigns, training their staff and developing their products accordingly.

Our daily conversations with British tourist boards, hotels and attractions tell us that, although some of the more forward-thinking organisations are keen to invest in this market, many others are relying on VisitBritain to do the job for them.

There simply isn’t enough money to go round and prioritisation of source markets is based on historic visitor numbers and, arguably, fairly unreliable research methods. I would argue that if you are going to take a leap, better to look forward, not backwards.

Finally, the inevitable word about visas. As we are not, and never will be, part of the Schengen agreement, the UK is at a disadvantage compared to countries such as France, Germany and Italy, where visiting Chinese tourists can use one visa to travel throughout a number of exciting countries with varied landscapes, culture, cities and, frankly, better weather.

In January, Philip Hammond proudly announced the introduction of a new two-year visa system, and there have been improvements in accessibility and processing. But more needs to be done, including the introduction of the promised 10-year multi-entry visa.

China operates on a system of relationships and networks, collaboration and cooperation, loyalty to friends and partnerships with colleagues. The easier it is for the Chinese to visit and make these affiliations with the UK, the better our export prospects, the more students will come here to study, and the greater the economic benefits to our tourism industry.

We need more action in our post-Brexit world, and we need it fast.


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