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Chinese tourism to the UK is growing with travellers looking for experiences

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Chinese tourists in London

No longer is it all about package tourists being bused from town to town but increasingly Chinese tourists want more experiences from their trips to the UK, writes Ben Clements

It’s impossible to go punting in Cambridge or whisky tasting in Scotland without bumping into Chinese tourists on the trail of good old British authenticity. More languages are spoken in London than any other capital city and today you are more likely to hear Mandarin on the Tube than French, a shift that reflects the changes taking place in the UK’s tourism industry.

Ever more businesses are investing in Mandarin-language services, as driving holidays, adventure activities and fine dining are now among the most desired travel experiences sought by Chinese tourists. Unlike their parents’ generation, who were most comfortable travelling on packaged guide tours, today’s Chinese increasingly view planning their own trips and designing their own itineraries as character-building experiences.

New figures show that more Chinese tourists than ever are travelling beyond Greater China to countries such as the UK. The growth rate of Chinese outbound trips for destinations globally, from 2008 to 2018, is estimated to be 437.5 percent.

“Chinese tourists are visiting the UK not just for shopping and ‘see-all-the-sites in five days’ bus tours – although these are still significant attractions – but also to seek out a more diverse range of experiences,” explains Tom Simpson, CBBC’s Senior Director and Head of Creative Industries & Sports. When it comes to sports and activities, Simpson says that the main attractions include Premier League football or tennis at Wimbledon, private cultural tours, for example visiting Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed, and participation in sporting events such as sailing around Loch Lomond in Scotland or running the London Marathon. “This reflects both the increased diversity of the Chinese economy and the growing hunger for unique cultural experiences overseas,” says Simpson.

The rise of the FIT – free and independent traveller – has led to a major change in the profile of Chinese tourists seen in the UK and elsewhere: often they are younger and looking for unique and more ‘authentic’ experiences as part of their travel plans. Engaging with FITs, however, is more challenging than with the traditional Chinese holiday makers and their preference for package tours, and understanding how this current generation research and plan trips is crucial. Technology is, as often is the case with China, key. Websites and apps such as Ctrip, China’s leading travel service provider with over 300 million users, are continually growing, and their engagement with attractions, hotels, retail establishments, and other tourism essentials continues to expand.

The rise of the FIT – free and independent traveller – has led to a major change in the profile of Chinese tourists

WeChat is another essential tool for engaging with the new breed of Chinese tourist. UK cities such as London have acknowledged this by responding with mini-apps to enhance the holiday experience. While mini-apps are a good start for engaging with Chinese tourists, the integration of WeChat pay and AliPay payment systems has the potential to transform the experience of the new Chinese traveller. “The next big wave of change is mobile payment system integration. Alipay and WeChat pay are starting to make serious inroads into the UK now, and this will continue to grow over the coming years. Alipay is accepted in retailers like Selfridges, Harrods, The Body Shop, and Watches of Switzerland. WeChat Pay has just launched at Camden Market”, says CBBC’s Assistant Director of Retail and the Creative Industries, Jack Porteous.

Chinese tourists are spending more time and money once they reach their destinations, but increasingly seek home comforts during their bespoke trips. In response, hotels are coming up with programmes to better accommodate Chinese guests. The Novotel London West, in Hammersmith, London, offers a Chinese-style breakfast and Chinese television channels. Hilton Worldwide has gone even further, creating a Huanying (‘Welcome’ 欢迎) programme that throws Chinese tea, slippers, and a Chinese-speaking staff member on call 24/7.

The attitude seen in hotels is being encouraged in other sectors by VisitBritain’s GREAT China Welcome programme that helps UK attractions and service providers get to grips with the basics. “More UK businesses are adapting to serve Chinese visitors better. We have a GREAT China Welcome programme currently supported by over 400 UK tourism businesses. This will continue to drive China-friendly services including guiding, literature and digital payment,” says VisitBritain’s Executive Country Director, Greater China and Interim Director China and North East Asia, Travis Qian.

High-end Chinese tourists are, however, leading the way in seeking out ever more bespoke styles of travel. Organisations operating in niche tourism markets aimed at high net-worth individuals are well placed to cash in on their sophisticated travel requirements. “Usually our clients come to us with a subject area that they would like to explore in depth and we then pull together a customised itinerary to give them a high level, exclusive experience, which they can’t create on their own or find with a travel agent,” explains the Director of New Chapters, Esther Leong. These organisations are often already familiar with their clients, and can therefore suggest topics and locations that they feel would be of interest to them. Leong explains that instead of backpacking and driving trips, New Chapters’ programmes are rooted in cultural and historical learning as well as, importantly, learning by doing. “Many of our clients are families interested in developing their own and particularly their children’s understanding of European cultures and developing an international mind-set and leadership capabilities in their children. Our learning programmes aim to be highly developmental and often prepare the children either for education or a career in the west,” says Leong.

The changes seen in Chinese tourists visiting the UK present new opportunities to British organisations, as well as fresh challenges, given the growing interest in customised travel experiences. With the interests, demographics and behaviour of Chinese tourists becoming more diverse, UK companies should tailor their services to tourists seeking experiences ranging from the affordable and adventure-orientated to the niche and bespoke. By examining the travel patterns and habits of sophisticated Chinese travellers, it is clear that Chinese holidaymakers seek a broad spectrum of experiences.

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