The media and retailers’ obsession with shopaholic Chinese tourists could be more fiction than fact with experts pointing out the unlikely sites of history and culture that these tourists flock to and clearly crave.
European countries will need to focus less on beach holidays and more on communist history, rolling landscapes and even poetic trees if they want to take advantage of growing numbers of tourists from China.
According to the China Tourism Academy, some 200 million Chinese could be travelling abroad annually by 2020, up from 82 million in 2012.
While the overriding image of the Chinese tourist in Europe is one of busloads of shoppers heading for the luxury boutiques in Paris and Milan, Europe must not get carried away by these stereotypes and think of other ways to tempt them on a long-haul flight, experts at the ITB travel fair in Berlin said.
“We’re been thinking not like Chinese, but like Europeans,” Eduardo Santander, the head of the European Travel Commission, which promotes tourism to the continent, told Reuters.
“Europe is still the number 1 tourism destination so far but that may dramatically change in 10 to 15 years if we don’t change some patterns.”
For Chinese tourists, the sun and beaches of the Mediterranean that are so popular with Brits, Germans and Russians hold little appeal, said TUI Travel CEO Peter Long.
Instead they want to visit places that hold historical relevance for their own culture, they enjoy classical music and, wanting to escape the smog back home, they appreciate a clear blue sky, Santander said, citing a study the group had done among Chinese web users.
Interesting places for Chinese travellers looking to explore Communist history include the German city of Trier, the birthplace of Karl Marx and Montargis, a little-known town 60 miles south of Paris.
Chinese history lovers are keen to visit Montargis because it was the home of Deng Xiaoping during the 1920s and said to be the place where a group of Chinese students first proposed the idea of a communist party for China.
Furthermore, if you see groups of Chinese people admiring a willow tree at King’s College, Cambridge, it is because it is mentioned in a much-loved modern poem ‘On Leaving Cambridge’ by Xu Zhimo.
With the euro zone crisis and austerity measures crimping travel budgets in Europe, it has become all the more urgent for countries like Spain and Greece to look outside their traditional British, Dutch and German source markets for income.
In Europe demand for cross-border travel is due to rise by only 2 percent in 2013, compared with 7 percent for Asia.
In Spain, where tourism accounts for 11 percent of gross domestic product, 57.7 million tourists visited in 2012. But arrivals from Britain, the country’s biggest source market with close to a quarter of the total number of visitors, were flat.
“The British and the Germans are not getting richer… and the times of flying for 10 pounds from London to Spain are ending,” Wolfgang Georg Arlt of Chinese tourism research institute COTRI said.
Spain has therefore set a target of reaching 1 million Chinese visitors a year by 2020, up from 177,100 in 2012, a goal described by Arlt as a tall order.
Shao Qiwei, chairman of China’s National Tourism Administration, said Spain must also overcome the language barrier to attract more Chinese tourists and adapt dishes to their tastes.
“We are hoping for more Chinese tour guides in museums and tourist sites and to see Chinese television in Spanish hotels,” Shao said at a UNWTO event in Madrid.
It’s not easy to adapt though and the ETC’s Santander said his organisation would try to ensure all parts of the tourism chain, from taxi drivers to tour guides and luxury hotel owners were educated on Chinese travel wishes and customs.
Spain has even already put on some bullfights where the bull was not killed at the end, to appease Chinese tourists who do not like blood.
Tour company Marly Camino, which offers high-end walking packages on the Way of St. James, a pilgrimage route to a cathedral in northern Spain, has seen an increase in enquiries from Asian tourists from Singapore and the Philippines, but said there was only one official Chinese-speaking tour guide in the region.
“There’s the cultural barrier too, the etiquette is a little different. If we’re going to be receiving that kind of client we want to be in the loop with how you treat that kind of client and what they expect,” said co-director Samantha Sacchi Muci.
Marly Camino therefore plans to create packages for Chinese agencies to directly market to tourists to side-step the language barrier, saying it needs such agencies as an intermediary to help crack the market.
Tourism watchers at the ITB in Berlin said Europe’s beach resorts could follow the example of the Maldives, among the top five most popular destinations for Chinese tourists.
The islands made a conscious effort to attract arrivals from sun-wary China with island hopping tours, night fishing and snorkelling when arrivals from Europe collapsed after the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
“Forty years ago, when Germans and Brits first started coming to Spain and Greece, they were a strange race too,” said Martin Buck, who helps organise the ITB, the world’s largest travel and tourism fair.
“But Spain and Greece used the chance to make those visitors into an important pillar of their economies. Why shouldn’t they do the same with the Chinese?”
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Photo credit: Chinese tourists take pictures of the Oktoberfest entrance during their visit of the famous Oktoberfest in Munich September 28, 2012. Michaela Rehle / Reuters