From the historical castles of Copenhagen to the aurora borealis north of the Arctic Circle, the natural and man-made wonders of Scandinavia are closer to home than most Chinese people imagine, and will only become closer in the years to come.
Per Holte, chairman of the Scandinavia Tourist Board (STB) China, says the most populous country in the world is also becoming one of the biggest driving forces behind Scandinavia's tourism industry. About 70,000 Chinese travellers visited Sweden, Norway and Denmark in 2005, an increase of 40 per cent from the previous year.
According to a 2005 survey by China Press of thousands of Chinese who wanted to travel to Europe, Scandinavia was one of the top three travel destinations, climbing from 13th place in 2004.
"We'll become China's favourite tourist destination in Europe," Holte predicts. "And we expect 20 to 25 per cent growth in the number of Chinese travellers every year."
In February 2004, the Chinese National Tourism Administration (CNTA) signed an agreement with the European Union granting Approved Destination Status (ADS) to 12 countries, including Sweden, Norway and Austria. Denmark also gained ADS in April that year. The ADS system simplifies exit procedures for Chinese tourists. They can simply use ordinary passports to apply for tourist visas if they want to visit an approved country.
In late-2004, the STB was approved by the CNTA to set up a representative office in Beijing, which has helped it familiarize more Chinese travellers with Scandinavia. The office now has six members. The STB also plans to spend 2 million yuan (US$241,000) per year on promotional activities, 17 to 20 per cent of Denmark, Sweden and Norway's total marketing expenses in the Asia-Pacific region.
Japan is still the region's most important market in the Asia-Pacific.
"But we are confident in China's development, especially its tourism sector. China is becoming a much stronger source of tourists, but we need to get to know the country better," says Soren Leerskov, managing director with STB Asia-Pacific.
Last summer, the STB's Beijing office conducted a Chinese market study to get a stronger grasp on local needs. The office first handed out questionnaires to thousands of Chinese consumers who have travelled to Scandinavia. Then, a focus group of 60 people from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou was selected for qualitative study. The focus group was asked about their thoughts on Scandinavian food, hotels and shopping.
Most respondents said they like Scandinavia for its natural scenery and relaxed lifestyle, and 80 per cent said the region exceeded their initial expectations. Scandinavia was even recommended as the top tourist destination in Europe. Holte says this was a particularly encouraging outcome.
"We want to create an 'exclusive destination' brand image for Scandinavia," adds Leerskov.
Yet some respondents complained they didn't feel they were able to access the best that Scandinavia has to offer. Several reasons were offered to explain this grievance. Service at the Scandinavian travel agencies was one problem, and language was also an issue. Many Chinese travellers disliked the food, and complained that shops in most cities closed too early.
The STB will tackle the language problem by sending up to 200 Chinese guides to Scandinavia this year.
"The agencies concerned should bear the main responsibility for providing the best services to Chinese travellers," says Leerskov.
"It takes time, and they have done a lot."
Since late-2005, Scandinavian travel agencies, airlines and hotels have been actively adding more local touches to their services. In February, 35 Chinese employees began working as cabin crew staff for Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), the STB's biggest partner. The Chinese magazine Scanorama, video-on-demand services and Chinese Internet access will also be provided on board soon.
SAS' sales revenues from Chinese travellers increased by 30 per cent last year, and the growth rate is expected to reach between 20 to 30 per cent, says Bjorn Ekegren, director and general manager of SAS Greater China.
The Vasa Museum, the most popular destination in Stockholm, the Swedish capital, has also embarked on a local campaign to lure more Chinese travellers. The museum began offering Chinese-language museum maps, films, and information this year.
"China has taken us by surprise, and we are trying to adapt to its explosive development," says Katarina Villner, a senior advisor at Vasa.
The museum accepted 900,000 visitors in 2005, 18,000 of them from China, or 20 per cent of the total. The number of Chinese visitors is expected to double this year, adds Villner.
Norway-based Lindstrom Hotel will also offer Chinese brochures, websites and food this year.
"We are trying to reach Chinese markets and please Chinese travellers," says Tanna Gjeraker, marketing manager with Lindstrom.
Last year, 1,800 Chinese travellers stayed at the hotel. Although this is only 6 per cent of Lindstrom's total visitors, it is a huge jump from the 50 Chinese tourists it accommodated in 2004.
Chinese travellers have also complained about Chinese travel agents, however. Two years ago, most local agents knew little about Scandinavia, but STB worked quickly to show them around the region. It even conducted seminars and provided DVDs and brochures, says Holte.
Yet some travellers still expressed dissatisfaction.
"The problem is that some Chinese travel agencies promise one thing, but do something else," says Leersko, adding that inconveniently located hotels, bad food and small rental cars are the top complaints.
There are other problems on the Chinese side. Scandinavian travel packages are usually priced at 17,000 yuan (US$2,073) in China, but this is often reduced by some Chinese agencies that try to attract budget travellers.
"They claim to provide quality services to travellers, but they don't. This hurts the industry," says Leerskov.
The same thing also happened in Japan 20 years ago, and South Korea five to six years ago.
"Travel agencies should try to find out what is really good for them and look for new ways to make money," Leerskov suggests.
In China, STB is careful about co-operating with Chinese travel agencies.
"We would like to co-operate with reliable agents who know our products and show an interest in them," says Xuan Yan, country manager with STB China.
"Credibility is important when it comes to visa applications."
China International Travel Service (CITS), one of the largest travel agencies in China, is one of STB's local partners.
"Scandinavian tours are one of our high-end products, and we will maximize customer benefits and avoid price wars," says Zhang Wei, director of CITS' European department.
Scandinavian products sold well at CITS last year, particularly throughout the July-August period.
"Chinese people are always showing interest in new things, and we expect sales revenues from Scandinavian products to take up 20 per cent of the total this year," says Zhang. He refused to reveal last year's figures.
(China Daily 03/13/2006 page7)
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