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UnionPay cards expanding globally

By Cecily Liu | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2016-12-18 15:38

More countries rush to accept the increasingly popular payment method as they bid to attract more customers

One of the largest global bankcard associations, UnionPay, is fast expanding its overseas networks to facilitate convenient payment services for Chinese outbound travelers, with the goal of rivaling Western banking giants Visa and MasterCard.

With a network spanning over 2.2 million merchants across 39 European countries, UnionPay's expansion momentum is demonstrated by the high-profile partnerships signed in November with the Czech Republic's largest commercial bank, Ceska Sporitelna, France's Louvre Hotels Group and Portugal's main card processing firm, Unicre.

UnionPay cards expanding globally

The Unionpay advertisement at Copenhagen Airport in Denmark. Provided to China Daily

"Europe is significant to UnionPay's internationalization strategy. At present, UnionPay's acceptance environment keeps improving both online and offline, and more types of merchants are accepting UnionPay cards, " says Cai Jianbo, CEO of UnionPay International.

Cai adds that the expansion supports increasing international collaboration between China and other countries and regions, as well as the exchange of personnel, by providing users with an improved customer experience and secure, convenient payment services.

UnionPay was founded in 2002 with a view toward enabling interbank payment transactions in China. The company began to expand overseas in 2004, which later led to the founding of its subsidiary, UnionPay International.

Despite its short history, UnionPay has quickly expanded to now being accepted in 160 countries and regions. It is now the world's third-largest payment network by value of transactions processed, behind only Visa and MasterCard, according to November statistics compiled by the US research service BI Intelligence.

Once entering a Western country, UnionPay's acceptance rate grows quickly, and here the statistics speak for themselves. For example, UnionPay's acceptance rate by local merchants is 90 percent in Denmark, 70 percent in Spain, and 60 percent in the Netherlands. Almost all ATMs in Switzerland, Austria and Iceland, and more than 80 percent of local ATMs in Italy, Spain and Greece accept UnionPay cards.

One unique advantage for UnionPay is domestic market strength, as UnionPay is currently the only interbank network in Chinese mainland that connects all of the ATMs of all banking companies throughout China.

UnionPay's international growth is helped a lot by booming outbound tourist numbers. Chinese outbound tourists exceeded 59 million in the first half of 2016, and China is the largest tourist source for many countries including Thailand, Japan, South Korea, the Maldives, Russia, and the UK.

For this reason, overseas retailers keen to attract high spending Chinese tourists have all accepted UnionPay, ranging from London's department store Harrods to Swiss jeweler Beyer, to the British hotel chain IHG.

Markus Baumgartner, sales director at Beyer, says working with UnionPay greatly improved Beyer's access to Chinese shoppers, and now 20 to 30 percent of revenue at Beyer's Swiss shops are processed through UnionPay.

"Payments we receive through UnionPay always come quickly and efficiently, and customers using UnionPay cards never experience payment issues. They're a great partner to work with," Baumgartner says.

Pierre-Frederic Roulot, president of Louvre Hotels Group, says of Chinese tourists: "We want to provide as much convenience as possible. Benefiting from the strategic cooperation with UnionPay International, we will be able to enhance our service quality and improve payment services for Chinese tourists." UnionPay cards are now accepted across the group's six major hotel brands, which include 1,100 hotels in 51 countries and regions. At the beginning of next year, UnionPay cards will be accepted by the group's 200 self-operated hotels, and then will be expanded across its 500 franchised hotels.

One factor behind UnionPay's fast international expansion is its partnerships with Western payment systems, so UnionPay can leverage those partners' existing networks.

Portugal's Unicre is a good example, as the partnership allowed UnionPay's member cards to be accepted by all ATMs in the country.

"Accepting UnionPay helps merchants attract customers, and thus realize an all-win result," says Luis Flores, CEO of Unicre.

Another example is Six Payment Services of Switzerland, which began processing UnionPay transactions in 2006.

"Chinese customers are a very important target group especially for merchants in the tourism and luxury business. We are, therefore, highly interested in enabling smooth payments for UnionPay cardholders at any of our merchants, be it on-site or, in the future, online," says Roger Niederer, head of merchant services at Six Payment.

Niederer adds that in the future his team also wants to work with UnionPay on ecommerce payments, so UnionPay card holders can shop online or book hotels in Europe.

In addition to facilitating easy payments, UnionPay also helped Bank of China with the issuance of the first European travel-oriented card in November, giving high-spending Chinese tourists an easy payment option that can be promoted to more than 100,000 merchants in 32 European countries, riding on a wave of innovative financial solutions targeting Chinese travelers.

This new card fits into Bank of China's Travel Mate Credit Card program, which has already issued about 2 million cards targeting Chinese people traveling to countries including South Korea, Japan and the US, all of which have payments facilitated by UnionPay.

Xu Luode, executive vice-president of the Bank of China, says the new card is a good solution given the concern that the rate of growth of Chinese shopping in Europe is now slowing, compared with the high growth of previous years.

"We combine premium European merchants and their promotions into our card offerings. So we say to our customers, there are good products and services in Europe; you should come here," Xu says.

Cai says that his team will work to strengthen technical support for UnionPay users, and help Chinese travelers get better promotional packages in Europe. Brands Bucherer and Beyer are examples of the first batch of retailers to sign up the card with unique promotional offers.

Another key discount opportunity UnionPay offered its users is its "50 Selected Business Districts" campaign, a package designed for the New Year and the Chinese Spring Festival. Since December, about 1,000 stores in 50 popular business districts worldwide are offering exclusive discounts for UnionPay cardholders. In Europe, participating merchants include Roger & Gallet, Lancel, Le BHV Marais, La Rinascente Duomo, El Corte Ingles, the Style Outlets and nine Value Retail Outlets.

The increasing use of renminbi payment for overseas purchases - facilitated by initiatives like the new Bank of China travel card - also fits into the wider trend of RMB internationalization, according to Cui Zhijian, an associate professor of operations management at IE Business School in Spain.

"In the long term, such initiatives will facilitate the internationalization of the renminbi and enhance the position of the Chinese financial industry in the world market," Cui says.

UnionPay's services are warmly embraced by customers.

"I try to use my UnionPay card whenever I can, instead of a Visa card," says Chen Yixin, a Shanghai student who visited the UK for a four-week summer study program in July.

"I've used UnionPay in many tax-free shops in London. It's simple and secure to use," Chen says.

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