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Captivating the Chinese tourist

Updated: 2015-01-04 13:16
By Valeria Croce (China Daily Europe)

Creating a China-ready hot spot in Europe isn't just about direct flights and hassle-free visas, it's about a vision to realize a destination's potential in this market

With a population of 1.3 billion and an economy growing at an unprecedented pace, China dwarfs most other emerging and established travel markets in terms of outbound travel potential. To broaden its appeal further, China became the most lucrative outbound travel market worldwide in 2013, when international travel expenditure reached $128.6 billion (106 billion euros).

European destinations are not immune to the allure of the Chinese market: They are well-regarded and positively received by Chinese travelers. International travel from China to Europe has grown by more than 20 percent per year on average since 2010. But despite the strong growth, that figure represents only 1 percent of all foreign arrivals to destinations in Europe. This primarily stems from a number of barriers - in the source market as well as at destinations -that should be addressed for the market to deliver on its full potential. Still, the factors in successfully shaping a China-ready destination not only evolve around the convenience of Chinese visitors with direct flights, hassle-free visas and provisions of Chinese information, but also reflect destinations' strategic vision on how to realize their tourism potential in this market.

That China will become an increasingly important source market for European destinations can be taken as a fact. Growing urbanization, improved air connectivity, and the massive growth in the size of the Chinese middle class will create a broad target base for the European tourism sector. The number of households earning over $35,000 - this income threshold being an indicator of the level at which international travel typically becomes affordable - is forecast to triple from around 30 million to almost 90 million over the next 10 years. Although the bulk of this Chinese outbound demand will likely remain within the Asia-Pacific, there will be a significant long-term benefit to European tourism, due to the classic "ripple effect", with growth in outbound travel reaching farther-flung destinations over time, as international travel becomes an integral part of the Chinese lifestyle.

With such an impressive growth comes more than just numbers. The European Travel Commission expects travel from China to Europe to grow by an average of 8 percent per year over the next five years. While this may look like just decent growth, if compared to other emerging markets like Brazil and India, the impact in terms of volume will be massive. At this pace, 11 million Chinese visitors are expected to reach Europe in 2018.

This sets China on the fast track to become a major source market for European destinations. Today's marketing approach hence plays a vital role to ensure a sustainable development, and to deliver a golden legacy for the future of European tourism.

Virtually every destination worldwide makes plans to lure Chinese visitors, many in an undifferentiated, volume-maximizing approach. While this approach may bring immediate results, it may also lead to undesired impacts in the long run. Through extensive research on consumer behavior and marketing strategies in China, the European Travel Commission identified factors that can concretely help its members to develop successful and distinctive strategies and maximize the match between their distinctive offerings and the experiences sought by this high-potential market.

A key success factor is to create ties with those segments that offer the best opportunities for European destinations. This requires moving away from the antiquated stereotype of Chinese tourists traveling in a group, preferably by bus and hunting for great photo opportunities. Instead the Chinese market must be accepted as a highly differentiated, rapidly evolving one, with a maturing consumer psychology. The European Travel Commission conceives the Chinese market as one populated by "tribes" that are bound together by shared passions, emotions and interests for travel.

Within these tribes, the commission identifies the best prospects in the experience-centered travel tribes, namely those independent travelers whose mindsets are Westernized and who pursue memorable experiences, quality services and self-realization through travel. To them, culture is a very important means toward this end, which gives Europe an unparalleled, comparative advantage thanks to its rich and articulated cultural past.

Providers should also leverage the power of online media.

Traditional, one-way communication is rapidly losing its effectiveness in China, due to changes brought by increasingly experienced and digitally sophisticated consumers. In this market, a wide range of marketing and sales techniques can work, and usually a combination of global and market-specific methods is necessary to engage in dialogue with Chinese netizens. A typical example is social media marketing, probably the most effective tool to inspire Chinese travelers-to-be. Here, the choice about which platform to use is crucial: Facebook, Twitter and other popular social media are not an appropriate choice for the Chinese audience, despite their mass appeal, because WeChat and Sina Weibo are far more popular. Furthermore, Chinese travelers frequently interact with social media during their holiday trips. This makes the market particularly keen in following influencers' advice on their first-hand experience with travel destinations.

It is important to challenge traditionally held perceptions. While services, as goods before them, increasingly become commoditized, consumers unquestionably desire unique experiences, the Chinese being no exception. This is the case in the tourism sector, where the purchase of goods and services is instrumental in living an experience, rather than fulfilling a need.

Selling experiences requires a deep understanding of visitors' expectations, which may challenge how destinations perceive their own tourism offers. The image of Europe in China is to some extent a stereotyped one, shaped by its rich history and cultural heritage, but also very much influenced by the values, culture and history of the Chinese themselves. The contemporary Chinese traveler sees Europe as a unitary destination, valued for its luxury brands, shopping opportunities, blue skies and well-protected environment. Needless to say, shopping, scenery and small cities may sell better in this market than what traditional tourism offers.

The travel commission recommends adapting destinations to Chinese interests.

Travel has become an integral component of the Chinese middle-class lifestyle. Individually, travel is a means for self-realization. Collectively, it symbolizes the achievement of the Chinese dream of a well-off society. Whatever is exotic is a motivator for traveling long distances, Chinese travelers' satisfaction is leveraged by links between the host culture and their homeland. Authenticity is appreciated in small doses, to the extent it doesn't shake up their habits. Chinese visitors like to sample local cuisine, but beyond that their preference remains Chinese food. A tourism product for Chinese people is more than a translated leaflet or tea facilities in the room. It implies looking at the travel experience through visitors' lenses, offering a menu of services that wisely merges distinctive characteristics of the local tourism supply with anything Chinese your destination can offer.

The European Travel Commission launched an outreach campaign with popular Chinese travel bloggers in 2014. Five popular bloggers were invited to tour Europe and share their travel diaries populated with images, videos and travel tips. The selected travel bloggers shared their European experience on their personal blogs and social media profiles on Weibo and Douban, to encourage thousands of Chinese online users to discover, comment and share the wonders of European destinations. While updates in social media were done in real time during their stay in Europe, blog posts were published after compilation of the trip. The 92 posts published within this initiative generated more than 800,000 reads and more than 8,000 likes. In 2015, the commission will replicate the initiative, with a focus on pan-European routes. The most famous Chinese travel bloggers will be invited to tour European cultural routes and other similar pan-European and transnational itineraries. Their interactive, audio-visual travel diaries can be followed on the revamped and on Chinese social media.

The author is head of research at the European Travel Commission. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

 Captivating the Chinese tourist

Li Min / China Daily

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