China / Regions

The world develops a taste for Chengdu

By Peng Chao in Chengdu, Cecily Liu in London and Lin Shujuan in Beijing ( Updated: 2014-08-29 14:24

Portia Graves discovered a taste of Chengdu in the unlikely setting of central London.

The online shopping assistant for the Royal Opera House, walked into a teahouse in Covent Garden in May during a lunch break with her colleague Helen Clements.

The next 20 minutes served up a visual and tasty feast.

In a traditional and ornate setting, they were poured authentic green tea from long-spouted pots as two performers decked out in panda costume warmly greeted visitors.

"I love pandas, they are so cute and lovely," Graves, 27, said.

More treats were in store, literally. A performer carried out a face-changing routine where different colors were applied within seconds and his facial appearance changed in the blink of an eye, as if by magic, Clements, 37, said.

By the time they left to return to work, they were discussing not just the tea or the magic acts but the city of Chengdu.

The teahouse, set up by Chengdu Municipal Foreign Affairs Office, was part of the city government's three-day campaign to attract more visitors.

Landlocked in southwest China, Chengdu has rapidly emerged as an international destination in recent years, not only as the hometown of pandas but also as a business and airline hub attracting Fortune 500 companies and it also serves as the gateway to western China.

The breakthrough came in 2006 when KLM launched a non-stop flight to Amsterdam and dozens of direct international flights have taken to the skies since.

Chengdu now has 35 direct international flights, making its Shuangliu airport one of the country's busiest.

The latest was launched by United Airlines between Chengdu and San Francisco in June, the first to link a city in the United States to a city in China's central and western regions.

Just a month before United opened the route, British Airways increased the number of direct flights between Chengdu and London from three to five a week, less than eight months after the route was opened.

Tracy Dedman, British Airway's regional general manager for China and the Philippines, said the company saw great potential in Chengdu, as it moves towards a world-class international aviation hub.

"We are sure UK leisure travelers will be very keen to visit the home of the Giant Panda as well as experience the excellent cuisine and rich culture of China, a civilization much older than our own," she said.

Li Li, deputy director of the Chengdu Municipal Foreign Affairs Office, said that London is the third European city to develop direct flights with Chengdu, after Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

She said the new flight has proved popular with both business and leisure travelers and will help to foster business links between Chengdu and the UK.

"Chengdu as a city has grown massively over the last few years. There are now a number of major companies who are interested in the Chengdu market, and we have a lot of links with the UK investment and financial services," Li said.

Chengdu is also a sister city with Sheffield and many students from Chengdu have gone to university there.

"There is a range of financial courses that universities in Chengdu and Sheffield cooperate on, and these courses are turning out professionals in the financial services industry in Chengdu," Li said.

She added that Chengdu is not just a major market in its own right but an important gateway to western China, which is why many international companies choose to set up regional offices there.

Willie Walsh, CEO of BA's parent company International Airlines Group, said the direct flights started between Chengdu and London in September and have fully met his expectations.

"One of the things that attracted us to set up this service is the number of Fortune 500 companies that already have a presence in Chengdu," he said.

Chengdu produces half of the world's laptop chips and two thirds of the iPads. More than half of the Fortune Global 500 companies have a presence in the city, such as Intel, Dell, IBM, Siemens, Bosch and Lenovo.

Walsh said he first visited Chengdu in 2010 and since then has been working on establishing direct flights.

The Chengdu-London flight is also the first non-stop flight between the United Kingdom and China's central and western regions.

"The local government plans to open three new international routes every year, a target that is rare across the world," said Chen Zhongwei, director of Chengdu's logistics office. The office, the first of its kind in the country, was set up by the Chengdu government to boost the transportation and logistics industry.

The city has 157 domestic and 74 international routes, enabling passengers to travel to 173 domestic and overseas destinations from Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport. Direct routes to Moscow, Paris and South Africa are also set to take off.

The airport has become the country's fourth-largest aviation hub in terms of passenger volume. It handled 33.4 million passengers in 2013 and the annual throughput of international passengers surged by 155 percent from 2010 to 2013.

Because of the surge, Chengdu is planning a new airport, the third city on the Chinese mainland to have a second airport, after Beijing and Shanghai. The new airport is expected to handle 80 million passengers annually.

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