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As spring days beckon, so does Europe

By Fu Jing, Zhang Chunyan and Li Xiang | China Daily | Updated: 2014-02-14 08:50

As spring days beckon, so does Europe

Chinese tourists meet some of the locals in Paris. A record number of Chinese traveled overseas during the recent Spring Festival holiday, the China Tourism Administration says. Provided to China Daily

More Chinese are spending spring festival abroad; Europe is high on the list of preferred destinations

When Wu Chong boarded a flight from Paris to Shanghai on Feb 4 she suddenly felt perfectly at home, surrounded by row after row of her compatriots. Yet during the eight-day trip to Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic she had just completed, she had barely seen a Chinese soul, with the exception of a few small groups in Prague.

"The flight was almost exclusively Chinese people, who were all busy putting their bags of new clothes and other stuff into the overhead bins," Wu says.

While Europe has been a big draw for Chinese in the recent Spring Festival holiday, they continue to be very choosy about where they go in the continent. Among their top considerations are the ease in obtaining visas and their flexibility, the influence of popular culture and the special services laid on for Chinese tourists.

A record 4.5 million Chinese are estimated to have traveled overseas during the holiday, a rise of 12.5 percent over the previous year, the China Tourism Administration says.

Of those travelers, Han Fang, an employee at Mandarin Voyages, a French travel agency that deals mainly with tourists from China, says agencies are citing Paris as one of the hottest destinations.

"We have seen a rapidly increasing number of Chinese tourists in Europe this year," she says. "France and Italy are among the most popular destinations for them."

The French government has pledged to fast-track the application process for Chinese tourists, which will allow them to obtain a visa in 48 hours. Han is optimistic that the move will attract more Chinese tourists to France and other European countries.

"We've also noticed that a growing number of Chinese tourists are not satisfied with simply taking photos in front of landmarks and shopping for luxury goods. Many of them prefer in-depth travel packages because they want to spend several days in one place - Paris, for example - and they want to explore the city, visit the museums and gain greater knowledge about its history. Many of them have clear plans and targets of their own."

Lack of flexibility

Although she enjoyed her stay in Europe, Wu had some complaints, mainly about the problems involved in obtaining visas.

"The northern European countries, especially Finland, deal with visa applications in an unfriendly way, in my opinion," she says.

The itinerary must be planned beforehand and potential tourists have to buy their air tickets before submitting their visa applications.

"It means that if I, as a single person, want to change my travel plans during my stay, I can't."

Moreover, the duration of the visa is exactly the same as the period indicated on the air ticket. "This allows little flexibility for travelers," Wu says.

For Han's agency, the most popular product during the Spring Festival was a tour that took the visitors to five countries in four days - France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

"The price effect is still noticeable when it comes to outbound tourism from the Chinese market," she says.

Tian Dong, who has been visiting France, says a simplified visa application process would make the country a more attractive destination, but she has safety concerns because Chinese tourists have become targets for crime in France.

"We were excited to learn that it will be much easier for us to apply for a French visa," she says. "That will certainly make the country more attractive to us.

"But safety is still a concern. I have to be always on alert when I travel in the country. It would be good if the local authorities could do more to address the safety issue."

The French tourist industry has been attempting to capitalize on the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and France, and as part of the Spring Festival celebrations, many tourist hotspots organized special events such as traditional dragon and lion dances.

A new trend

An increasing number of Chinese see overseas travel as a fashionable way to celebrate Spring Festival, says Kevin Shao of Omega Travel, one of the Britain's leading travel agencies.

"Compared with last year, the number of Chinese visitors rose by 30 percent during Spring Festival," Shao says, adding that the peak time is the first week of the new lunar year.

Travel as a family or as several families in a group has been an important new trend this year. Groups such as this prefer to design their itineraries and choose the hotels themselves, rather than use an agency to do it, he says, adding that Chinese visitors usually have some knowledge of the UK or have done a lot of homework before traveling.

Having gained a taste for British culture via TV, movies and books, Chinese tourists are mainly interested in museums, palaces, castles and the old universities. London, Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, York and Edinburgh are the most popular destinations, industry insiders says.

Beth McKillop, deputy director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, says: "We monitor which collections the Chinese visitors view during their visit as part of a 'rest of the world' category, which also includes Asia, Australia, New Zealand, South America and Africa. The top four V&A collections visited by this group are currently sculpture, fashion and textiles, medieval and Renaissance, and jewelry."

In 1991, the V&A became the first European museum to feature captions in English and Chinese, which were installed in the T. T. Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art. The museum also has an active Chinese community program with a particular focus on the Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn festivals.

Because British TV dramas such as Downton Abbey and Sherlock, and the Harry Potter movies and books, have captured the imaginations of many people in China, many tourists want to visit the locations or studios when they visit the UK, says Chen Wei, who has worked as a travel guide in Britain for 10 years.

Educated, aspiring Chinese viewers find these dramas compelling viewing and believe they provide insights into the British way of life, he says.

Tom Jenkins, executive director of the European Tour Operators Association, says: "Chinese visitors appear to be exceptionally well behaved and increasingly sophisticated in their appreciation of Western culture."

Last year, insensitive behavior by a few Chinese tourists, such as the 15-year-old who defaced a sculpture in the ancient temple at Luxor in Egypt, made headlines around the world, and led to Chinese authorities drawing up a guide to help travelers prepare for, and respect, other cultures.

High spending

As incomes and living standards rise, more Chinese visitors are demanding high-end facilities during their trips, says Shao. "Some tourists are not satisfied with three-star hotels and choose four- or even five-star establishments instead."

These high-spending tourists have become an increasingly welcome sight in the UK and across Europe, and every country wants to capitalize on the trend.

"The one-day shopping trip to Bicester Village, an outlet shopping center, is gaining popularity among Chinese visitors," Shao says.

Chinese visitors to the UK spend three times as much as Arabs, Russians or other traditional big spenders, Vince Cable, the UK business secretary, said in a recent article for the London Evening Standard.

The number of visitors from the Chinese mainland rose from 89,000 in 2009 to 179,000 in 2012, he said. Preliminary figures for 2013 (to the end of the third quarter) have already hit 160,000, suggesting a record year in store.

"I want to ensure that Chinese visitors - be they tourists, business visitors, students or family members - are made welcome in the UK," Cable said.

By contrast, because Belgium is not a major destination for visitors during the Spring Festival holiday, Chinese tourists are not the main focus for the country's travel industry, says Dominique Andre, manager of New Markets at Wallonie-Bruxelles Tourism in Belgium.

"At present, we are not marketing or doing a lot to attract Chinese tourists because we focus more on the neighboring markets. I think the northern part of Belgium is marketing itself in an effective way in China, and the Brussels region wants to attract more Chinese visitors and become more international," she says.

However, the situation in Wallonia is different because the region is renowned for its natural scenery, festivals and culture, and most Chinese tourists prefer to visit cities for shopping, she says.

Andre believes Belgium needs to focus more on "deep travel" and promote special attractions: "Tourists prefer to visit something typically European, but different from other European cities. Therefore, we have to focus on what the Chinese would like, and focus on the very specific products of certain cities." She suggests that more money and investment are needed to facilitate exploration of the Chinese market.

Last year, Chinese travelers to Belgium registered more than 11,000 purchases with Global Blue, a financial company that pioneered tax-free shopping services. Those visitors spent an average of almost 800 euros ($1,080) per purchase, which resulted in Chinese shoppers accounting for 15 percent of total tax-free business in Belgium.

The company says 60 percent of all Chinese purchases were fashion and clothing, including bags, while watches and jewelry accounted for 28 percent. However, Global Blue says that it has not seen a marked increase in spending during the Spring Festival period because most Chinese buy their goods in Europe around May 1, during the summer months and the so-called golden week in autumn.

Low-key atmosphere

Meanwhile, the differences in the way the Chinese celebrate Spring Festival at home and in Europe were obvious to Zhang Jun, who visited his mother in Brussels during Spring Festival.

"It seemed that the atmosphere was very low-key. Although there were dragon and lion dances, they were limited to Chinatown and I didn't have the opportunity to see them," says Zhang, who had been traveling with his family in France, Switzerland and Belgium since Jan 23.

Although it is technically the off-season, they have seen Chinese tourists all over France and Switzerland. "We found quite a lot of them - even in Interlaken, which is a really small Swiss city," he says.

Another man, who would only give his surname, Wu, and was visiting Brussels with his family, says the number of Chinese who observe the festival traditions is in decline. "Now, there is no festive atmosphere anywhere. Maybe in the north of China they still stick to the Spring Festival traditions, but we don't prepare any special celebrations, except for visiting relatives and watching the Spring Festival Gala on TV."

However, the lack of tradition does not bother Zhang and his family. "We just took the Spring Festival holiday as the perfect chance to travel around."

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Li Xiaofei and Yang Yang contributed to this story.

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