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Travel firms hope to reclaim lucrative Chinese market share

By Julian Shea in London | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-17 11:37
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When it comes to the Spring Festival travel rush, preparation is everything - and this year, travel companies in the United Kingdom hope to continue to reclaim their lucrative pre-pandemic market share of Chinese tourists.

As the managing director of Guanxi, a representation company that helps British tourism brands sell their offerings in China, Helena Beard knows the market well.

She told China Daily there are two Chinese demographics - tourists, and UK-based students - distinctly different, but united by a love of quality experiences.

"Before COVID in 2019, there were 882,000 Chinese visitors to the UK, making them the 10th-biggest market in terms of numbers; and in terms of spend, they were the second-biggest," she said. "We know they stay longer than other nationalities, and are more likely than others to travel around the country, particularly to Scotland."

The UK's Chinese student market comprises about 150,000 people, who are often internationally aware, with language skills and a desire to explore.

They see being based in the UK as a hub from which to explore Europe and to take the opportunity to go to places they have always wanted to visit, because once their studies are over, they will start work, and so this is their chance to have life experiences, Beard said.

Having worked so closely with the Chinese market, she knows what to do and what to avoid, to keep customers satisfied.

"It's hugely important to be welcoming and respect cultural differences," she said. "Embarrassing someone in public, even if it's just about something like keeping off the grass, is an absolute no-no. Anything that draws attention to people is devastating, so clear instructive signage is important."

Beard lives in the coastal city of Brighton, and her commute to London through the countryside has highlighted one thing she said Chinese visitors love.

"It makes me smile how they get so excited about animals in fields," she said. "They don't understand why we don't go in and pet them, because they find them so cute, but if you live in a tower block in central Beijing, I suppose you're not used to seeing fields of sheep."

As Spring Festival was approaching, Beard said she felt optimistic that the Chinese tourist resurgence would continue this year and beyond.

"Everything I'm hearing is that this year will be good, and numbers will get back to pre-COVID(levels)," she said. "The big issue at the moment, though, is the loss of the ability to reclaim VAT (value added tax). This means a high-spending group (will probably) spend its money in Paris or Milan instead of London, which means less money in the tills, and shorter stays, so it's lost hotel revenue as well."

The pandemic, Beard said, has made people value their time and money more.

"What we missed were the things we enjoy, so now people are more likely to think'let's spend more time in that hotel, not rush around so much; let's make the visit worthwhile'," she said.

"The trend definitely seems to be fewer places, for longer, more quality time. It's a more mature market. I think it makes for a good future."

Big hit in southern Europe

Shifting the focus to southern Europe, Montenegro is another country that is vested in continuing to attract Chinese visitors. In December 2021, the Chinese tourism magazine Traveling Scope named the country as the best foreign destination with natural landscapes.

Located in the Balkans, Montenegro is only 13,812 square kilometers in size, with a population of just over 600,000, but it is a big hit with Chinese visitors.

In the first nine months of 2019, the number of Chinese tourists to Montenegro more than doubled, according to figures from the European Travel Commission, and as travel normality returns, the country is eager to build on that legacy.

"We have opened an office in Beijing because we see a big increase in Chinese interest in the Balkan region in general," Emil Kukalj, innovation director at the Montenegro Tourist Service, told China Daily. "We've been at all the major travel fairs in China, and have a lot of presence on Chinese social media, because our country has so much to offer."

Over the years, Montenegro has seen many cultures pass through ,including the Venetians and Ottomans, all of whom have left their cultural imprint on a country known for its mountains, clean air and health resorts, with almost 10 percent of its land being national parks.

Described by Conde Nast Traveller magazine last year as "the underrated European gem that should be on everyone's radar", Montenegro offers visitors scenery, health tourism, nature, skiing and shopping, and is consciously looking to attract more visitors from China, which has just helped build its first major highway.

Last year, London's Time Out magazine ranked the Montenegrin resort of Kotor as the world's most beautiful place. For centuries, it has been known for the health-giving properties of its clean air, which is a mix of mountain and sea breezes, and it is a United Nations-protected natural and cultural-historical region.

Lidija Bozovic, director of sales at the Hyatt Regency Kotor Bay Resort, told China Daily that a lot of out-of-season business seemed to be driven by younger Chinese tourists, budget airline flights from elsewhere in Europe, and social media.

"Toward the end of last year, we noticed that we were getting a lot of custom from China, and we wondered why, so we investigated and found out that it was down to people finding out via a social media group, where someone had shared details about their trip," she said.

Identifying these viral vacationers and TikTok tourists as a rich source of Chinese interest has enabled tourism bodies in Montenegro to specifically target the demographic, with tailored videos, social media offerings and specially designed programs.

"We focus on telling them what (Montenegro) offers. We have mountains, we have amazing scenery, and it's a very safe place for single travelers," Bozovic said.

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