In 2012, Angelica Cheung, editor of Chinese Vogue, posted online about her afternoon tea in Claridges. Since then you will almost always find a few groups of Chinese there, enjoying this quintessentially British ritual. Keen to have more authentic experiences, typically – but not always – younger tourists with a better grasp of English are looking online for travel tips and meandering their way through the UK, venturing well off the beaten track.
Chinese tourists visiting the UK spend £2120 per trip – more than any other nationality – and three times the average spend. Since 2012 they have been the largest outbound tourism market in the world. Luxury shopping and heritage monuments are still major draws, but an FT Confidential Research survey last year found that spending on shopping decreased from 47% to 37% and the amount spent on accommodation, food and entertainment rose from 31% to 44%. Host nations, tourism and travel companies, should be paying more attention to the travel trends emerging from these more discerning tourists.
Eve Baker is the CEO of BeiWei55, a tour operator run by Mandarin-speaking British guides. She followed the interests and suggestions of her clients and expanded her tours beyond the typical tourists stops and some of her most popular sites are now the fashionable, multicultural districts of Brick Lane and Shoreditch, the Brighton Laines and traditional countryside pubs in the Dedham Valley. BeiWei55 guides have found that once the ice is broken their clients are thrilled to have real interaction with a local and dive into subjects like pop culture, history, education, and politics.
Many Chinese tourists are seeking to explore and connect, but language and technological barriers stop them from going further. Wider adoption of Mandarin in shops, hotels, restaurants and public transport will give tourists the freedom to explore the country but, to fully realise the potential, host nation businesses need to integrate into the seamless digital experience for shopping, reservations and payment that is used in China.
If someone living in Shanghai needs to travel urgently to Beijing, all they need to bring is their ID card and their smartphone. Flights and hotels can be booked and paid for by phone. If they need to change, they buy clothes online with next day delivery to the hotel. Restaurant booking and payment is via app and no need to bring a charger as most restaurants have charger rental services – payable by phone, of course. A Chinese tourist, with basic English skills, that is used to doing everything conveniently and reliably on their smartphone will be frustrated with a visa card, unfamiliar currency and limited to no function on their Mandarin interface apps.
If businesses are serious about attracting Chinese tourists they must first make a profile on Chinese travel experience sharing sites (such as www.qunar.com and www.qyer.com) where tourists upload their itinerary with personalized suggestions and comments. The more intrepid tourists use these platforms to explore destinations around the globe with recommendations that have the Chinese point of view and are written in native Mandarin. Only once a restaurant or hotel has a profile on these travel sites and booking and payment enabled on payment mechanisms like WeChat and Alipay will they be truly visible and accessible.
Beyond language and payment, understanding culture is essential. Restaurants that mount photo sceneries that encapsulate the theme of the establishment (common in China) give clients the opportunity to take memorable group photos that double as powerful and free marketing when shared online and tagged to the restaurant’s profile. The manager of a household name New Bond Street store spoke to us of difficulties that her staff have in adjusting to the sometimes impersonal demeanour of the Chinese clients, but she highlighted that they are some of her highest spenders. Adaptation will be key.
There are many businesses that unknowingly hold huge appeal to Chinese customers seeking curiosities and experiences that can’t be found at home. Artisanal food and drink producers, live music venues, country pubs, outdoors excursion guides and the hotels and restaurants of historic regional towns should be asking themselves what more they could be doing to attract Chinese tourist custom. Can local businesses collaboratively create an offer of the region’s best attractions and articulate this on the Chinese online world? Which service providers can assist them in connecting to Chinese online booking and payment platforms? Providing the best customer experience will be a challenge, but who does it first and does it right can reap the rewards. This could be transformative for regional economies and global tourism.
Leaving the linguistic and technical barriers to one side, Western travel destinations would do well to look beyond the stereotypes and cultivate a genuine sense of curiosity and interest in the world’s largest and growing outbound tourist market. Chinese tourists are keen to see more of our world but they can only go as far as we make possible. Business owners should try to anticipate what else Chinese tourists could be looking to explore, how this applies to their offer and what steps need to be taken to facilitate the same kind of smooth and easy customer experience they are used to having at home. The efforts made to accommodate this new stream of business could also have the pleasant consequence of kickstarting more widespread adoption of China’s highly advanced digital technologies through Europe and North America.