Many destinations from all corners of the globe are trying to reach Chinese travelers with ad and marketing messages as nearly 140 million Chinese traveled internationally last year.

The challenge in spreading those messages in China is making them stand out from competitors on platforms such as WeChat, the largest messaging and digital commerce mobile app in China.

That’s according to Roger Qiu, Ctrip’s general manager of destination marketing for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, who spoke during a call organized by the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI) on Chinese tourism growth and trends in Europe in 2017 and beyond. Ctrip is China’s largest booking site and has been investing in tour operators and other tourism businesses to deepen its strength abroad.

Qiu said that many European destinations, which have experienced steep growth in Chinese arrivals in recent years, are having a difficult time differentiating themselves in photos and videos, for example, on WeChat.

“In Chinese travelers’ minds, many European countries are very similar,” Qiu said during the call. “But it’s not always about the picture, it’s the story behind the picture you have to educate our clients with.”

Having captivating photos and storylines on WeChat and other Chinese platforms is especially key for mobile bookings, said Qiu. Ctrip had twice as many mobile bookings as desktop during the first half of 2017. “Mobile will be a new trend for the Chinese tourist, especially for the young generations,” he said.

Helping Independent Chinese Travelers

WeChat is helping to enable Chinese travelers who want to take part in the increasingly popular option of traveling independently or taking semi-guided tours instead of sticking with a guide for an entire trip.

“Chinese tourists aren’t into low-standard tours anymore,” said Qiu. “Price isn’t the only influencing factor anymore with Chinese and might actually harm the reputation of the destination.”

Destinations need to diversify their activities on WeChat, not only with shopping but also the availability of local food, said Qiu. “The Chinese tourist is starting to enjoy more local activities such as amusement parks and museums,” he said. “Medical tourism is also becoming more and more popular.”

While packaged tours are still popular in China, the growth of travelers going without a tour has challenged Ctrip to make more customized itineraries. “For travelers going independently, some are looking for tickets to attractions on mobile last-minute,” said Qiu. “Some of our providers can only make tickets available one or two days before and can’t provide tickets in real time.”

Chinese travelers are tired of traveling overseas and only meeting other Chinese tourists, one reason why there’s a growing shift towards independent travel, said Wolfgang Arlt, founder and director of COTRI, also speaking during the call. “This has come up again and again in our research,” he said. “Chinese travelers want destinations to be ready for them and to see some Chinese but not too many.”

Chinese Tourism Growth in Europe

Chinese tourism has grown exponentially across Europe during the past decade and most recently, Northern and Eastern Europe have been welcoming particularly high volumes of Chinese travelers, COTRI data show. Northern European tourism boards such as Visit Norway, Visit Sweden, and Visit Finland have all been running marketing campaigns on WeChat, COTRI found.

In Serbia, Chinese arrivals are up 160 percent year-over-year for the first half of 2017 while arrivals for Poland and Croatia are both up more than 60 percent for the same period and Iceland’s arrivals are up nearly 57 percent (see chart below).

Western Europe still has the highest number of Chinese arrivals with Italy at 1.5 million for the first half of 2017 and France at 970,000, for example.

“More countries are getting opportunities to become popular in this fast-changing Chinese market,” said Arlt. “But it’s clear that the trend is to go to smaller European countries.”

The main drivers for increased Chinese tourism in Europe have been simplified visa procedures, more direct flight connections and more information readily available on Chinese platforms like WeChat, said Alrt.

“Schengen countries continue to open more visa application centers in China that help to shorten the visa processing time and a number of countries in Europe outside of the Schengen agreement recognize the visa for entries into their country from a Schengen country,” said Arlt. “However, it is still difficult for Chinese leisure travelers to get a multiple- entry visa for the EU.”

So far this year, 16 new routes were launched connecting Chinese airports with European airports, such as two new Milan routes and direct flights to Madrid and Barcelona.

But being able to manage that growth hasn’t been easy for some destinations, said Arlt. “Many destinations have been successful with getting large package tours from China, but many of those tours only stay for a few hours in some destinations,” he said. “They create what is called overtourism and a lot of problems for destinations.”

Besides marketing on WeChat, networking with Chinese living in Belgium has been one of the biggest assets for Wallonie Bruxelles Tourisme a Belgian, a region in southern Belgium, said Dominique Andre, manager of overseas and emerging markets for the region’s tourism board.

“It’s important to get local Chinese [residents’] thoughts about what we’re doing with tourism marketing,” she said. “Chinese living in Europe are very, very important. They’re in contact with their families and they can be our ambassadors in China.”

Year-Over-Year Growth in Chinese Arrivals for Select European Countries  

CountryPercent Growth in Chinese Arrivals For First Half 2017
Serbia161.7%
Bosnia and Herzegovina94.2%
Montenegro74.6%
Poland73.2%
Croatia67.6%
Spain64.4%
Estonia62.3%
Iceland56.7%
Czech Republic56.5%
Finland53.7%
Hungary52.4%
Slovenia49.2%
Netherlands42%
Norway40.9%
Russia32.2%
Austria28.6%
Italy26%
France24.4%
Romania21.9%
Sweden19.9%
Germany17.8%
Macedonia10.2%
Switzerland9.5%
Cyprus8.8%
Denmark4.4%

 

Source: Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute

Photo Credit: Destinations are increasingly using WeChat to market to Chinese travelers. Pictured are Chinese tourists at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. georgios kaleadis / Flickr