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Chinese tourists, Europe and the UK

    The CPS sometimes features guest posts from students. In this extended blog by William Lim Kee Chang, Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, age 15 argues that the UK must up its game if it is to compete with Europe for Chinese tourists. 

    China, with a quarter of the world’s population, has a rapidly growing outbound travel market owing to the relaxation of travel restriction by the Chinese government; the increase in wealth of Chinese citizens; and globalisation. This has a huge potential for European economies. Chinese tourists spend on average £202 a day on trips to Europe, and can spend more than £600 in one shopping trip according to CB Richard Ellis Consultancy. Other estimates put the average amount spent by a Chinese tourist in Europe at £3,676 to £4,595. At the highest end, it has been reported that 1 billion Euros was spent in 20 shops alone in Paris last year.

    However, according to a new report by the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies commissioned by Hilton Hotels & Resorts (October 2011), around 127,000 Chinese tourists came to the UK in 2010, while France, Italy and Germany were each currently attracting between 500,000 and 700,000 Chinese visitors. This year, France is set to break through the 1 million visitor barrier. Why is the United Kingdom lagging behind its European neighbours in attracting Chinese tourists? There are several reasons for this:

    Firstly, the UK is not part of the Schengen Treaty area unlike the majority of the other major European countries, including France, Italy and Germany. The Schengen Agreement means that only one visa is required for a foreign tourist to travel to any or all of the twenty-five Schengen countries. Since the UK is not part of this agreement, a separate visa is required by Chinese tourists to visit UK also.

    Moreover, the UK visa application process is felt to be long, cumbersome and expensive. It is also perceived to be too intrusive requiring applicants to answer questions on their personal affairs and income.  Applicants must also supply biometric data including fingerprints (and so all have to attend in person) and the application form is seemingly the longest form of any major destination: at present, the Schengen application form is not only shorter (the UK visa application is nine pages long compared to the four pages for Schengen), but it is significantly cheaper (at £47 for a Schengen visa) than a UK visa (which costs £78). All this only serves as a deterrent to the majority of the Chinese tourists who therefore regard the Schengen visa as better value for money and the UK visa not worth the trouble.

    Secondly, there is the “Fortress UK” image which UK is being portrayed as. This image is reinforced by stories of the long queues at immigration at UK airports. As reported recently in the press, passengers are having to queue for up to four hours to go through airport immigration. This gives the impression that endless checks are being carried out which is likely to put Chinese tourists off.

    Thirdly, it would appear that what most Chinese look for in Europe are the picturesque, romantic settings and well-known landmarks backed by history and culture that they have seen in films and other media and read about. Thus, the Chinese tourists’ preferred destinations are the famous, celebrated landmarks that everyone back home knows and can relate to. Shopping, especially for luxury goods, is also a prime attraction among Chinese luxury travellers (the nouveau riche elite).  These Chinese luxury travellers, while happy to visit a destination’s famous sites, are as much if not more interested in a luxury shopping experience.  Although European luxury goods are very much more expensive than goods in China, their appeal lies precisely in their high-end price, good quality and Western countries’ provenance – a status symbol.  Shopping in Europe is thus regarded as an opportunity not to be missed. Unfortunately, as Sir Andrew Cahn, director of UK Trade and Investment says "The Chinese view of Britain is a rather old-fashioned one; it’s all to do with Britain as being a heritage country, a traditional economy – there’s an awful lot of cobblestones and fog" [The Guardian]. The UK is thus losing out in attracting these Chinese tourists and shoppers. Furthermore, as the British ambassador to China, Sebastian Wood, remarks in his recent letter to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, “the French really are considerably better organised than we are. Their PR work on tourism is all about spin and positivity”. As a result, France and Italy, it seems, are the most widely recognised European destinations in China. The Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles rank top while Galeries Lafayette (a very popular department store in Paris which currently is attracting four coach-loads of Chinese visitors every day) in Pairs is also far better known that Harrods in London. Similarly, the Colosseum and Venetian gondolas in Italy figure among the European landmarks most widely recognised in China.

    Fourthly, our major European competitors provide easier access than the UK. Figures from show that airline seat capacity from international origin markets to the UK increased by only 2.9% between 2006 and 2010 compared to 6.3% for France and 5.0% for Germany. The table below shows the annual seat capacity and number of flights between China and selected European nations in 2010:

    2010 Annual Figures





    To France



    To Germany



    To Italy



    To the Netherlands



    To United Kingdom



    Source: and VisitBritain


    As highlighted by VisitBritain, Heathrow’s two runways are already operating at 99% of capacity and the terminals accommodate 75,000 more passengers than they were designed for. The result can be a poor passenger experience and welcome, as facilities are overwhelmed.

    Finally, the often unsettled weather in the UK could be a factor deterring the Chinese tourists in search of hot sunny vacation. Whilst the image of the UK weather is of cloudy, rainy and wet days, the south of France and Italy on the other hand are usually associated with a hot and sunny Mediterranean climate.

    So what more must UK do to attract the Chinese tourists?

    Firstly, the visa issue must be addressed with a view to reducing the intrusive documentation and time required to obtain a visa. It is good to note from Sebastian Wood’s letter to Theresa May that:

    • Processing times have been brought down with most visas being returned in 5 days or less and refusal rates dropping to 5%.
    • New and bigger Visa Application Centres have been opened in 12 different Chinese cities.

    But more should be done. The UK should consider adopting a policy that automatically grants entry into the country to anyone who already has a Schengen visa to allow them to visit (i.e. a short stay visa) or at least provide them with a fast track visa service. This would still allow the UK to have some control over its borders (a reason why the UK opted out of Schengen) but at the same time encourage more Chinese tourists to visit the UK. The current visa application process necessary for Chinese tourists hoping to visit the UK needs to be improved and made more efficient and perhaps cheaper to make it more attractive to Chinese tourists to apply for a UK visa and extend their tour of Europe to include UK. If it appears to the Chinese that the UK is not an enthusiastic host, the UK will steadily but surely decrease in popularity as a tourist destination in Europe, losing out to other competing countries.

    Secondly, the UK must do more to promote itself in China and make it more attractive for the Chinese tourists to come to UK. 

    • The internet, printed media and television are the most effective ways of making Europe known to prospective Chinese tourists as a potential destination according to an ETOA survey of European Tour Operators in April 2006. These must therefore be utilised to their full potential to make the UK better known to the Chinese. However, in addition to these forms of the media, promotional events and personal recommendations are also very effective in persuading the Chinese to visit.
    • It should also be noted that in China, attitudes and thoughts about a foreign country or destination are greatly influenced by what is heard through word of mouth. A good impression must be made to the Chinese tourists who do come here, so that they can give positive feedback on the UK to others once they return home and share their experiences in the country with them.
    • The language barrier can also be a big turn-off for the Chinese tourists. Efforts should be made to provide more information in public places in Chinese. Often, it is French and sometimes Spanish which is the language that most information is translated into. Considering the rapidly increasing number of Chinese tourists in Europe, it is perhaps time to include Chinese in the translation as a matter of course to make the UK appear more ‘friendly’ towards Chinese tourists and to make itself an easier and more welcoming place to visit.

    According to, many establishments in Paris, Dubai and other destinations have hired Mandarin-speaking staff and translate public information into Mandarin. They also accept payment via China Union Pay credit card (the Chinese tourists’ preferred method of payment which, in UK, is accepted only by Harrods and Selfridges it would appear).

    Thirdly, as mentioned before, there are not as many flights between the UK and China as there are between other European countries such as France. More direct flights between the major Chinese cities and UK must be established to enable the UK to compete as a tourist destination with the rest of Europe. An example of a successful campaign to increase tourism from China is Lufthansa, one of Germany’s leading airlines. At present, six cities in China are directly linked by Lufthansa to Frankfurt, in Germany. In addition to the usual hubs in China of Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai, Lufthansa also flies to the fast-growing cities of Nanjing, Qingdao and Shenyang. As a result, it has become significantly easier for the 12 million people of Nanjing, Qingdao and Shenyang to come to Europe. However, since Lufthansa is one of the few airlines into Europe from these three cities, it is highly likely that Frankfurt will be the place where the majority of Chinese tourists begin their tour of Europe and as a result gain the most from the increase in Chinese tourists in Europe. It is difficult to see how the UK can compete unless a third runway is built quickly at Heathrow.

    Although the UK’s economy has benefited greatly from the boost in tourism as a result of events such as the Royal Wedding last year (which has helped to increase awareness of UK and its culture in China) and will again benefit from the further boost in tourism and the amount of publicity brought about by the London 2012 Olympic Games, it must begin to gear itself towards the rapidly increasing tourism from China and ensure UK tap into this market and not miss out on the huge potential for economic growth that Chinese tourism can bring. Visit Britain, the UK’s main tourism body estimates that relaxing the UK visa rules for visitors "could deliver £2.8bn extra from tourism" in addition to the £18 billion a year generated by foreign tourism already. In France, the number of Chinese tourists is increasing by more than 15% every year and competition is growing from other European countries which are keen to attract Chinese tourists as well, such as Spain (where the government has set a target of attracting to welcome at least one million Chinese tourists by 2020). If the UK is to have a chance of competing with its neighbouring countries for the potential benefits from the ever-increasing number of Chinese travellers set to visit Europe in the decades to come, we must hugely up our game.

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    Anonymous - About 2850 days ago

    Well done, you are spot on.
    For 3 years I have been working for a Chinese travel marketing company which promotes outside companies to the Chinese outbound travel trade.
    The UK figures have stayed about the same since Hong Kong went back. The UK had an early advantage and blew it.
    The UK tourist authorities were happy with China's familarity with the UK, problem was it was all Dickens and Sherlock Holmes.
    I'm told Chinese visitors ask where the smog is, probably makes them feel at home.

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