On Tuesday, Wu Chong returned from an eight-day trip to Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. She said she found few Chinese travelers in the museums and historic sites of Scandinavia, but saw several groups of them in Prague.
So, when she boarded a flight from Paris to Shanghai and discovered that most of the other passengers were Chinese, she wondered where they had all come from.
“The flight was almost exclusively Chinese people, who were all busy putting their bags of new clothes and other items into the overhead bins,” Wu said.
A record 4.5 million Chinese people are estimated to have traveled overseas during Spring Festival, a rise of 12.5 percent from a year ago, according to the China Tourism Administration.
While Europe was one of the most popular destinations, there are marked differences between countries and factors such as the convenience of the visa applications, the influence of popular culture and the special services provided for Chinese travelers.
According to Han Fang, an employee at Mandarin Voyages, a French travel agency that deals mainly with tourists from China, agencies are citing Paris as one of the busiest destinations.
“We have seen a rapidly increasing number of Chinese tourists in Europe this year. France and Italy are among the most popular destinations for them,” she said.
The French government has pledged to fast-track the application process for Chinese tourists, which will allow them to obtain a visa in 48 hours. Han was optimistic that the move would attract more Chinese tourists to France and other European countries.
“We’ve also noticed that a growing number of Chinese tourists are not satisfied with simply taking photos in front of the landmarks and shopping for luxury goods. Many of them prefer in-depth travel packages because they want to spend several days in one place — Paris, for example — and they want to explore the city, visit the museums and gain greater knowledge about its history. Many of them have clear plans and targets of their own,” she said.
Although she enjoyed her stay in Europe, Wu Chong had some complaints, mainly about the problems involved in obtaining visas. “The northern European countries, especially Finland, deal with visa applications in an unfriendly way, in my opinion,” she said.
The itinerary must be planned beforehand and potential tourists have to buy their air tickets before submitting their visa applications. “It means that if I, as a single person, want to change my travel plans during my stay, it will not be possible,” she said.
Moreover, the duration of the visa is exactly the same as the period indicated on the air ticket. “This allows little flexibility for travelers,” Wu said.
For Han’s agency, the most popular product during the Spring Festival was an intensive package, which took the visitors to five countries in four days — France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
“The price effect is still noticeable when it comes to outbound tourism from the Chinese market,” she said.
Tian Dong, who is currently visiting France, said a simplified visa application process would make the country a more attractive destination, but she still has safety concerns because Chinese tourists have become targets for crime in France.
“We were excited to learn that it will be much easier for us to apply for a French visa. That will certainly make the country more attractive to us,” she said.
“But safety is still a concern. I have to be always on alert when I travel in the country. It would be good if the local authorities could do more to address the safety issue,” she said.
The French tourist industry has been attempting to capitalize on the long diplomatic relationship between China and France, and as part of the Spring Festival celebrations, many tourist hotspots organized special events such as traditional dragon and lion dances.
An increasing number of Chinese see overseas travel as a fashionable way to celebrate Spring Festival, according to Kevin Shao of Omega Travel, one of the UK’s leading travel agencies.
“Compared with last year, the number of Chinese visitors rose by 30 percent during Spring Festival,” Shao said, adding that the peak time is the first week of the new lunar year.
Travel as a family or as several families in a group has been an important new trend this year. Groups such as this prefer to design the travel routes and choose the hotels themselves, rather than use an agency to do it, he said, adding that Chinese visitors usually have some knowledge of the UK or have done a lot of homework before traveling, which provides greater flexibility and self-determination.
Having gained a taste for British culture via TV, movies and books, Chinese tourists are mainly interested in museums, palaces, castles and the ancient universities. London, Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, York and Edinburgh are the most popular destinations, according to industry insiders.
Beth McKillop, deputy director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, said, “We monitor which collections the Chinese visitors view during their visit as part of a ‘rest of the world’ category, which also includes Asia, Australia, New Zealand, South America and Africa. The top four V&A collections visited by this group are currently sculpture, fashion and textiles, medieval and Renaissance, and jewelry,” she said.
In 1991, the V&A became the first European museum to feature bilingual captions (English and Chinese), which were installed in the T. T. Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art. The museum also has an active Chinese community program with a particular focus on the Chinese New Year and mid-Autumn festivals.
Because British TV dramas such as Downton Abbey and Sherlock, plus the Harry Potter movies and books, have captured the imaginations of a huge number of people in China, many tourists want to visit the locations or studios when they visit the UK, according to Chen Wei, who has worked as a travel guide in Britain for 10 years.
Educated, aspiring Chinese viewers find these dramas compelling viewing and believe they provide insights into the British way of life, he said.
Tom Jenkins, executive director of the European Tour Operators Association, said, “Chinese visitors appear to be exceptionally well behaved and increasingly sophisticated in their appreciation of Western culture.”
Last year, insensitive behavior by a few Chinese tourists — such as the 15-year-old who defaced a sculpture in the ancient temple at Luxor in Egypt — made headlines around the world, and led to the Chinese authorities writing travel etiquette into the regulations to help travelers prepare for, and respect, other cultures.
As incomes and living standards rise, an increasing number of Chinese visitors are now demanding high-end facilities during their trips, according to Shao. “Some tourists are not satisfied with three-star hotels and choose four- or even five-star establishments instead.”
These high-spending tourists have become an increasingly welcome sight in the UK and across Europe, and every country wants to capitalize on the trend.
“The one-day shopping trip to Bicester Village, an outlet shopping center, is gaining popularity among Chinese visitors,” Shao said.
Chinese visitors to the UK spend three times as much as Arabs, Russians or other traditional big spenders, according to Vince Cable, the UK business secretary, in an article for the London Evening Standard on Monday.
According to Cable, the number of visitors from the Chinese mainland has risen steadily in recent years, from 89,000 in 2009 to 179,000 in 2012. Preliminary figures for 2013 (to the end of the third quarter) have already hit 160,000, suggesting a record year in store.
“I want to ensure that Chinese visitors — be they tourists, business visitors, students or family members — are made welcome in the UK,” Cable said.
By contrast, because Belgium is not a major destination for visitors during the Spring Festival holiday, Chinese tourists are not the main focus for the country’s travel industry, according to Dominique Andre, manager of New Markets at Wallonie-Bruxelles Tourism in Belgium.
“At present, we are not marketing or doing a lot to attract Chinese tourists because we focus more on the neighboring markets. I think the northern part of Belgium is marketing itself in an effective way in China, and the Brussels region wants to attract more Chinese visitors and become more international,” she said.
However, the situation in Wallonia is rather different because the region is renowned for its natural scenery, festivals and culture, and at present most Chinese tourists prefer to visit cities for shopping, she said.
Andre believes Belgium needs to focus more on “deep travel” and promote special attractions: “Tourists prefer to visit something typically European, but different from other European cities. Therefore, we have to focus on what the Chinese would like, and focus on the very specific products of certain cities.” She suggested that more money and investment are needed to facilitate exploration of the Chinese market.
Last year, Chinese travelers to Belgium registered more than 11,000 purchases with Global Blue, a financial company that pioneered tax-free shopping services. Those visitors spent an average of almost 800 euros ($1,080) per purchase, which resulted in Chinese shoppers accounting for 15 percent of total tax-free business in Belgium.
The company said 60 percent of all Chinese purchases are fashion and clothing, including bags, while watches and jewelry accounted for 28 percent. However, Global Blue admitted that it has not seen a marked increase in spending during the New Year period because most Chinese buy their goods in Europe around May 1, during the summer months and the so-called golden week in autumn.
Meanwhile, the differences in the way the Chinese celebrate Spring Festival at home and in Europe were obvious to Zhang Jun, who visited his mother in Brussels during Spring Festival.
“It seemed that the atmosphere was very low-key. Although there were dragon and lion dances, they were limited to Chinatown and I didn’t have the opportunity to see them,” said Zhang, who has been traveling with his family in France, Switzerland and Belgium since Jan 23.
Although it’s technically the off-season, they have seen Chinese tourists all over France and Switzerland. “We found quite a lot of them — even in Interlaken, which is a really small Swiss city,” he said.
Another man, who would only give his surname as Wu and was visiting Brussels with his family, said the number of Chinese that observe the festival traditions is in decline. “Now, there is no festive atmosphere anywhere. Maybe in the north of China they still stick to the Spring Festival traditions, but we don’t prepare any special celebrations, except for visiting relatives and watching the Spring Festival Gala on TV,” he said.
However, the lack of tradition didn’t bother Zhang and his family. “We just took the Spring Festival holiday as the perfect chance to travel around.”
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