Chinese travelers arriving in Helsinki this week will feel right at home — at least when they are staring at their screens.

The city on Tuesday launched its MyHelsinki Mini Program in conjunction with WeChat’s parent company Tencent. It’s billed as the first app to offer locally-sourced travel recommendations, public transportation, and purchase capabilities to Chinese travelers who want a “live like a local” experience.

Of course, the idea of creating a in-destination experience that will feel digitally seamless to Chinese travelers is not entirely new. Numerous destinations have invested in building WeChat microsites, and parent company Tencent has been working with tourism organizations throughout the U.S. and Europe to help them reach what is the largest outbound travel market in the world using the app. In addition, companies such as RiverPay exist to connect North American merchants with Chinese consumers through the likes of WeChat Pay and Alipay.

But the so-called “smart tourism” program in Helsinki is the first program outside of China that Tencent had an active hand in developing and launching. It is analogous to the E-Travel in Yunnan app — the Chinese province that’s home to Shangri La — in which tourists can buy tickets, use public transport, and make payments in their own language using their phones. The difference, of course, is that MyHelsinki’s program doesn’t require tourists to download another app, taking place instead entirely within the WeChat interface. Tencent has been a leader in pioneering this seamless “online to offline” tourist experience, said Tia Hallanoro, director of brand communications & digital development for Helsinki.

Serving as one of the fastest and most direct flight pathways between mainland China and Europe, Helsinki is a common stopover for Chinese tourists. In 2018, there were 220,000 overnight stays by Chinese and Hong Kong residents in Helsinki, a number that has more than doubled in the past five years.

With the integration of WeChat Pay, Chinese travelers won’t have to upset their usual spending patterns or worry about local currency when they visit the city for a quick stop-over.

The program hopes to make Helsinki the first cashless destination for Chinese travelers, from restaurants and public transport to department stores. However, they have some way to go on the merchant side. EPassi, a Finnish company that covers around 90 percent of the Chinese mobile payment method accepting merchants in Finland, hopes to have 2,000 merchants set up by the end of 2019.

“In the Western world it’s so hard to understand the digital leap of China, which is a country that’s almost cashless — the impact on consumer lifestyle is huge,” Hallanoro
said. “We want to make it as easy as smooth and seamless as possible to experience the whole city: You can land in the Helsinki airport, plan your route, transport method, restaurant you want to have lunch in, and pay for everything including the lunch in the application. You don’t need to worry about the language barriers or the time limits before catching your transfer.”

So is the city trying to lure more Chinese tourists and boost its inbound numbers with the launch of this project? Not quite. Like an increasing number of tourist destinations grappling with the age of overtourism, the focus now is more on better managing the ones they have, rather than boosting numbers.

“There has been a lot of discussion about unbalanced tourism during the last couple of years. Especially as we know the Chinese are just about to start traveling — it’s prone to grow. For small cities the infrastructure needs to be supported as well,” Hallanoro said. “What we’re trying to do with MyHelsinki Mini Program is to get the travelers who want to explore the city off the beaten track. To really explore the city from the perspective of what the locals feel are the most meaningful experiences.”

Tencent no doubt sees much broader application for this kind of smart tourism elsewhere, with Helsinki serving as its first international showcase of sorts. Zhan Shu, general manager of the Tencent Governmental Affairs and Tourism Center, said in a press release that when it comes to Chinese travelers, “travel patterns are in real transition,” with Chinese people seeking what he called the trend “in-depth traveling,” or going beyond the tourist spots.

A McKinsey report from November 2018 backed this up, saying that a majority of Chinese tourists now “prefer to immerse themselves in local life” rather than visit landmarks.

Photo Credit: Forget about finding a cash machine. Harri Tarvainen / MyHelsinki