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Brexit's tourism benefits

By Angus McNeice in London | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2016-07-31 16:00

Britain's decision to leave the European Union is already generating signs of a boom in Chinese travelers who like to shop abroad

The tourism industry and retailers are readying for a sharp upturn in the number of Chinese visitors to post-Brexit Britain, starting with this summer's tourist season. Travel sites reported Chinese searches for UK holidays shot up as the pound tumbled after the June 23 vote on EU membership.

"On our website, the number of consumers asking about British tourism increased rapidly after the referendum," Shi Yuduan, chief marketing officer at Chinese travel website Ctrip, tells China Daily. "Searches on our app about British tourism routes have doubled."

Brexit's tourism benefits

Jay Smith, managing director of Beiwei 55, a UK tour operator that offers Mandarin-speaking British guides, reports a "large spike" in inquiries in the weeks after the referendum.

"Some guests were quite explicit: they wanted to book now while the pound was low," he says.

The weakened euro will also see an increase in travel to other European destinations, according to Hu Hui, director of research and development at Chinese travel agency Caissa.

"The cheaper pound and euro brought on by the referendum will in the short term be an incentive for Chinese travelers going to Britain," he says. "It will reduce the cost of outbound tourism and also increase tourists' interest in traveling and shopping in destination countries. If the exchange rates stay like this, I think our travel business to Europe will increase by about 15 to 20 percent."

There is a concern, however, that the recent terror attacks in France and Germany will negatively affect the countries' tourism industries, as analysts speculate many tourists may choose to go elsewhere in Europe due to security concerns.

France is the world's top tourist destination, welcoming 85.4 million international visitors last year, according to Rochelle Turner, research director at the World Travel and Tourism Council.

"(France) has struggled with too many of these terror attacks in the past months, and it will suffer in the short term as travelers, who, as a whole - like people generally - are risk averse, decide to choose other destinations for their holidays," Turner says.

Alternate destinations may include the United Kingdom, which is now almost 10 percent cheaper than it was last year. That's a big incentive for Chinese travelers, for whom shopping is an essential part of a visit to the British Isles. Bicester Village - the outlet shopping center in Oxfordshire - is the second most visited location in the UK for Chinese visitors, behind Buckingham Palace.

Forty percent of Chinese tourists visit luxury stores while in the UK, and spend an average 2,100 pounds ($2,750; 2,510 euros) per visitor, according to Patricia Yates, director of strategy and communications at VisitBritain, part of the British Tourism Authority.

"We know that value is one of the most important criteria for holiday choice across the world and Britain is looking like a particularly good value for Chinese currency - we're 8 percent cheaper than this time last year," Yates says.

China's outbound tourism has grown at double the rate of its GDP over the past three years, and visits to the UK rose by 46 percent in 2015. Increased disposable income among the Chinese and changes to visa regulations have contributed to the upturn, yet Yates says the rapid influx of Chinese tourists into the UK caught VisitBritain by surprise.

"When we first forecast where our market growth would come from immediately post-Olympics (London 2012), we talked about China really being the long play - we wanted to double the value of the market by 2020 to 1 billion pounds, but we've seen China grow so quickly that it's no longer a long play, it's one of the most valuable markets," she says.

Last year, spending by Chinese tourists in Britain was up 18 percent to 586 million pounds, making it the ninth most valuable market for the UK in terms of spending. For many in tourism, retail and hospitality, getting "China ready" has been central to business strategy in recent years. Over 300 businesses signed up for the UK's China Welcome program to help find ways of making their product more appealing to Chinese visitors.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Chinese travelers spent $215 billion abroad last year, 53 percent more than in 2014.

Beiwei 55's Smith says British brands are in strong demand by Chinese tourists, and that a trip to Oxford Street is as important as a selfie in front of Big Ben.

"In general, shopping is a must do while (Chinese visitors) are in the UK," Smith says. Travelers have started to request visits to less internationally established retailers, like health store Holland & Barrett and shoemakers Clarks, in addition to prominent luxury brands.

"There are the obvious brands, like Burberry, that they are after, but there are certain ones that are less expected like (handmade cosmetics company) Lush," he says.

Lush has taken several measures to improve the experience for Chinese visitors at its stores. Many Lush shops carry catalogs in simplified Chinese, and all of its UK tills accept Bank of China cards. UnionPay and Alipay will be accepted on its UK website starting in August.

"We know (Chinese customers) like to visit the home of Lush in the UK," says Karen Huxley, head of global public relations at Lush. "Shops in key tourist areas have Mandarin-speaking staff - like our Oxford Street store."

While luxury brands are likely to be buoyed by increased sales to foreigners because of the weakening pound, there is concern among retailers over inflation affecting imported goods and falling demand from domestic consumers.

Beyond retail, Yates says one of the biggest drivers for the UK tourism industry is the country's ancient and modern cultures. From Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes to Harry Potter, British figures both real and imaginary are as much of a draw as the country's landmarks and idyllic countryside. Widely publicized visits from Chinese leaders also are thought to have an effect on what Chinese visitors seek out.

"We're seeing an increasing number of tourists from emerging markets such as China, particularly since (former premier Wen Jiabao's) visit to Shakespeare's birthplace in 2011," says Alisan Cole, PR executive for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which oversees visits to the Bard's family homes in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Smith calls President Xi Jinping's visit to the UK last year a "huge boost" to bookings, noting that many visitor itineraries now directly reflect activities the president undertook while in the UK. Fish and chips and a pint is now a common request after the well-publicized pub visit by Xi and former UK prime minister David Cameron.

The hospitality industry is set to receive a boost, too, with the weak pound, increasing both the number of inbound visitors and Britons opting for "staycations" by remaining within the nation's borders for summer holidays.

Stephen Cassidy, senior vice-president for UK and Ireland, Hilton Worldwide, says the hotel chain is focused on specific steps to make the rising numbers of Chinese guests feel welcome.

"The Hilton has its very own tailored program for Chinese travelers called Hilton Huanying, which takes its name from the Mandarin word for welcome," Cassidy says. "The scheme focuses on three signature hospitality touch points - the arrival experience, guest room amenities and the breakfast experience. From a special huanying greeting on arrival, to world class Chinese cuisine and a Mandarin-translation service."

According to the 2014 Nations Brand Index Survey, tailoring receptions for Chinese guests would greatly improve perception of the UK among visitors. The survey found the two areas of relative weakness for Britain were perceptions of "welcome" and "natural beauty".

The survey also found that Chinese visitors closely associated the UK with museums and that more Chinese visitors expected a visit to Britain to be romantic than the typical inbound traveler.

Chen Yingqun contributed to this story.

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