Chinese tourism shows no sign of slowing down, unlike its economy. In the first nine months of 2015, 214,000 Chinese tourists visiting the UK was up 37 per cent.
Overall spend by Chinese visitors is expected to double to £1 billion by 2020, with visitors already spending on average £2,688 each – a figure which keeps growing year on year. With major celebrations in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, what was going in Brighton and Hove?
New Year, the biggest event in the Chinese calendar, was celebrated at the Clarendon Centre on Saturday, organised by the Chinese Educational Development Project (CEPD). The city’s council-run tourism department VisitBrighton is working with Tourism South East’s (TSE) Go China campaign and also organises press trips for Chinese travel writers.
But one Brighton-based businesswoman thinks more should be done to take advantage of this rapidly growing and lucrative market. Helena Beard runs agency China Travel Outbound, which promotes Chinese travel and tourism into the UK.
She thinks with the growth of independent travel among urban middle classes, and the launch of the British Airways i360 and the Snowdogs by the Sea charity trail, now is the time to seize the opportunity.
Helena said: “With its proximity and connectivity to London and its attractive tourism product, Brighton has great potential to increase its visitation from independent Chinese travellers. “It will also benefit this year from the opening of the BAi360, and from its ever growing number of quirky, shops, festivals and events, not least the Martlets’ Snowdogs sculpture trail which will provide the perfect opportunity for the ‘cute selfie’, and is fortuitously scheduled to cut right across Golden Week – a peak Chinese travel period.”
But while Brighton has a good number of Chinese students, many tourists stay in Oxford and Cambridge, Birmingham and Bristol. But Brighton could be attractive to the younger, more adventurous independent traveller.
Helena said: “Independent travellers are seeking unusual experiences beyond the typical London, Oxford, Stonehenge triangle, and Brighton offers variety and colour unlike any other British destination. “Add to this a growing student population from Hong Kong and mainland China, and our city needs to prepare for a boom Year of the Monkey.”
So what are the barriers to Chinese tourism?
One is that because the UK is not part of the European Schengen agreement, meaning Chinese tourists have to pay for separate visa. Helena added:
“With the growth coming to the UK in general, Brighton should have a huge increase in visitors, but we need to put the right welcome in place. “It’s the biggest market in the world. Everyone knows the need to do something, but they don’t know how. It’s a complicated market to access.
“We need to make sure the hotels are set up and that they accept UnionPay. We need to get good stories about Brighton out to China. “The digital landscape is completely different, with no Facebook or Twitter, so we need to engage in their social media channels.”
VisitBrighton has been marketing the city as a destination for Chinese visitors for some time.
Tourism South East’s (TSE) Go China campaign last year included representation at a leading sales mission in Beijing, inclusion in UK based Chinese newspaper advertorial and media activity and a presence in TSE’s South East England China guide, website and Chinese social media page, Weibo.
The council’s head of Tourism and Venues, Howard Barden said: “We’ve organised press trips for a number of influential Chinese travel writers and assisted the Chinese Embassy with a visit they arranged for a group of Chinese journalists.
“We’re currently working with national tourism body VisitBritain to bring a large group of travel trade representatives to the city next month with a view to them arranging Brighton tours for Chinese visitors.”
But one critic believes uncertainty over public spending on tourism marketing was holding back the potential.
Soozie Campbell, chairwoman of Brighton and Hove Tourism Alliance, said: “We should also be operating to attract this growing sector at a strategic level. I don’t think we are doing this but at the moment, but we don’t really know anything about future plans for tourism as we are awaiting the budget announcement.
“If it were down to me I would have developed a clear strategy and plan to capitalise on this growing market but sadly it isn’t.”
Tourism business are due to be briefed on funding for tourism services at a Tourism Alliance meeting on March 2. But whatever happens with funding, there is plenty of optimism over opening of i360 this summer, a tourism attraction expected to put Brighton on the world stage.
The attraction is already promoting to travel trade buyers in China at events such as the World Travel Market.
It is also involved in the Go China! Campaign missions to China by Tourism South East representatives, as well as activity within the UK to provide content for the Chinese social media network Weibo and The European Times, a publication aimed at Chinese people living and working in Europe.
One example was a visit by mascot Mr Panda in December 2015 which included a hard hat tour of the i360 site. In March, the i360, Visit Britain and Tourism South East will bring a group of Chinese Travel Trade Buyers to Brighton to familiarise themselves with the city.
Sean Watkins, head of marketing at British Airways i360, said: “We are also expecting interest from the Chinese wedding market. It’s a Chinese custom for couples to have their wedding photos taken before they are married, rather than on the day of their wedding.
“We will also be developing a multi-lingual app for visitors to download with interesting content about the construction process and to help them discover more about the sights they can see from the pod at 450ft. The app will be available in ten languages including Chinese.”
Social media exposure to the growing younger market is seen as crucial to attracting visitors. One example which demonstrates this potential is the Regency Restaurant in Kings Road. A few years ago the fish restaurant noticed a huge increase of Chinese visitors.
The grateful but confused management asked around and discovered the reason was a mystery Chinese celebrity had visited and posted on social networking site Renren. Manager Emilio Savides said: “It’s the shellfish they really love – scallops, cockles oysters etc. A lot can’t get this type or quality in China
“We’ve also had Hong Kong celebrities come – Yuan Wah from Kung Fu Hustle was in the other day. It was only after people started taking pictures we worked out who is he was.
Emilio added: “A lot of visitors aren’t even staying in Brighton, they come from Oxford, Bristol and Cambridge and are coming to Brighton for the day. “The i360 will defiantly be an additional attraction for them.”