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UK rolls out red carpet for China's tourists

China Daily, December 1, 2014 Adjust font size:

Shoppers, among them many Chinese, run into Selfridges as the doors open for the start of the Boxing Day sale at their flagship store on Oxford Street. [File photo]

Teresa Hou has just signed up her 10-year-old son for a 15-day camp to visit prestigious universities in the United Kingdom during the upcoming winter holiday.

The 36-year-old from Beijing hopes the trip will motivate her child to study hard to be admitted by one of those universities some day.

The 15-day trip cost Hou 38,800 yuan ($6,300), but despite the high price, Hou says it is worth it. She says it is not only an educational trip, but also a sightseeing trip that she hopes will expand her son's horizons.

Thanks to China's expanding middle class, who have gained in wealth and disposable incomes in recent years, more Chinese like Hou's family are traveling abroad for sightseeing, shopping and other reasons, making Chinese one of the fastest-growing groups of tourists in the world.

Virtually every country wants to capitalize on this growing trend, including the United Kingdom. Its tourism industry has set a goal of making the UK one of the most welcoming destinations for Chinese tourists in Europe. One strategy has been a series of initiatives in China to promote travel in Britain. But industry practitioners say there is still much to do to cater to the growing sophistication of Chinese travelers.

"We expect the number of Chinese visitors to continue to increase significantly. The UK is still a relatively undiscovered destination for Chinese visitors, but is still one of the top global destinations for culture, heritage, countryside, shopping, music, sports and food," says Robin Johnson, head of overseas operations and China project director for VisitBritain, the British national tourism body.

The number of Chinese tourists in the UK has grown steadily in recent years. In 2013, there were 196,000 visits from China to the UK, an increase of 9.7 percent, generating spending of 491.7 million pounds ($770.6 million), up 63.8 percent year-on-year, the agency says.

"We want to make sure that the UK competes effectively for this market, helping the industry to develop products and services that appeal to Chinese visitors, and make sure that the message of Chinese tourists being welcome to travel to the UK is widely promoted."

This year VisitBritain launched a campaign called Great China Welcome that aims to attract 650,000 Chinese visits to the UK a year by 2020, worth about 1.1 billion pounds annually to the UK economy.

Since its launch, the Great China Welcome initiative has encouraged more hotels, restaurants, attractions and other hospitality businesses in the UK to become "China-ready". The campaign also helps Chinese visitors easily identify them. Johnson says VisitBritain hopes more tourism providers from the UK will invest in making their products more suitable for the Chinese market.

"Almost 200 businesses have so far signed up for the program, which is free and open to any UK business that meets the necessary criteria. The UK is already one of the most welcoming destinations for Chinese visitors, but we do not want to rest on our laurels. We want to ensure that every Chinese visitor to the UK has the best possible experience."

Although the number of Chinese traveling to the UK keeps rising, by far most of them are with tour groups, says Zhao Dexiang, manager of Shanghai China International Travel Service. If the UK wants to attract more independent Chinese tourists, local tourism practitioners need to be more China-friendly, he says.

"Not all tourists are willing to visit several cities in six or seven days. It is a rushed and compressed trip. But for those who do not speak English, they can visit the UK only in tour groups organized by travel agencies.

"If you do not speak the local language, you feel helpless when you travel alone. So if the UK wants to attract more self-tour Chinese tourists, I think it is important to provide information in Chinese and meet Chinese people's cultural needs."

To answer to the demand of Chinese DIY tourists, Johnson says VisitBritain has worked with businesses to share customer insights and holds seminars to raise cultural awareness.

"British hotels, attractions and tour agencies are working toward providing printed, online or audio information to visitors in Mandarin or Cantonese, providing Chinese food, training their staff to meet cultural needs and expectations of Chinese visitors and many other efforts to ensure that Chinese visitors can feel more at ease," he says. "A number of stores in the UK have recruited Mandarin-speaking staff to better deal with Chinese consumers. Some big department stores have launched Chinese-language apps, offering Chinese tourists store guides, restaurant menus and event details."

"We also made an online guide for UK businesses, combined with a self-assessment tool which will enable individual businesses see where improvements are most needed."

Also, UK Visas & Immigration is trying to make entry easier for Chinese tourists.

In 2013, 96 percent of Chinese who applied for a UK visa got one. The average processing time for non-settlement visas was less than seven days, which is eight days quicker than the 15-day service standard, the agency says.

In July, the UK Home Office announced improvements to the visa system in China, including a 24-hour visa service; the expansion of mobile identification systems using biometrics, or physical characteristics like fingerprints; and a new service enabling customers to apply for the UK and Schengen visas at the same time. The Schengen visa is a common visit allowing entry into 22 European Union member states and four non-members. The UK is among those that are not signatories.

"It is now much easier to apply for a UK visa," Johnson says. "We are continuing to see rising numbers of Chinese visitors to the UK. New visa improvements will provide Chinese visitors with a quicker and simpler service than ever before."

To give Chinese who have never been to the UK a chance to experience British culture and heritage, VisitBritain worked with an online video portal in China,, to launch the first British online film festival in China, called Great Britain on Screen, which started in October and continued till November.

"Through this campaign, we want to take our audience on a journey through the UK's many film and TV destinations," Johnson says.

"People can discover the unique British lifestyle by immersing themselves in London's West End, following in the footsteps of Harry Potter, living the Bond lifestyle, and seeing 'Downton Abbey' at Highclere Castle."

In addition to sightseeing and relaxation, Chinese tourists are also big spenders in British department stores. Visitors from China spent an average of 2,508 pounds per visit to the UK in 2013, nearly four times the global average of visitors to the UK, which is 640 pounds.

"For Chinese people who want to experience the culture, have a taste of history, and shop at the same time, we want them to know Britain is an ideal place," Johnson says.


Here is some advice by Visit-Britain for UK businesses to become "China Ready"

· Learn to see beyond the cliches about Chinese tourists. For example, don't assume that the Chinese only want to eat Chinese food;

· Think about long-term engagement and commitment. Chinese prefer to do business with friends-so work to build friendship and trust;

· China is not a single market. Understand the regional and demographic identifiers;

· Maintain an active presence on China's Internet;

· Localization is important and should be delivered appropriately. Under no circumstance use machine translation for your website;

· Emphasize the brand heritage, its history and the human-interest story in your marketing;

· Show respect for Chinese culture.

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