Chinese tourists spent an incredible $102 billion travelling abroad last year, making them the world's biggest spenders on international travel, yet in the UK the full effect of this has yet to be felt. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 179,000 people visited the UK from China last year, collectively spending £300 million - approximately 0.45% of Chinese travellers' global spend.
Comparatively, 1.4 million Chinese travellers visited France last year according to figures released by the French government, and that figure is expected to grow. France is the top European destination of choice for Chinese travellers with a third (33%) of the 3,000 Chinese residents we surveyed recently for our Chinese International Travel Monitor (CITM) report saying they would like to visit France in the next year versus a fifth (19%) who would like to visit the UK.
The UK's rules for Chinese tourist visas are being pointed to by many as a key reason why other countries in Europe, such as France and Italy, are benefiting more from the boom in Chinese travel. Unlike the UK, both countries have signed the Schengen agreement, which gives visitors access to 26 countries with a single visa, while a separate more expensive visa is required to enter the UK.
What's more, the application form to gain a tourist visa for the UK is only available in English, while Mandarin forms are available for visitors to the Schengen area. If you consider that few Chinese people are fully proficient in speaking English - the country is ranked 36th worldwide in the global English Proficiency Index - it's easy to see why a Mandarin form is more attractive.
Improvements to the UK's visa system
With the ease of applying for a visa now a top priority for a fifth (19%) of Chinese travellers when planning a trip abroad, the UK's Home Office has recognised that improvements can be made and earlier this year started to publish guidance for visa applications in Mandarin.
Steps have also been taken to make the system easier for business leaders visiting the UK in a bid to encourage more investment here. Instead of having to travel to a UK visa application centre to have their finger prints taken, business travellers can book an appointment at home or in the office to have their biometric data taken, but the cost of £1080 means that this may be out of reach for some.
Talks are also underway with tour operators, who bring large numbers of Chinese tourists to the UK in organised groups, to streamline the process for these visitors, however this approach could mean that the UK misses out on the growing trends for Chinese people to book travel independently. Two-thirds (62%) of the Chinese residents Hotels.com polled book holidays independently, with this shift being led by younger travellers, who are more confident booking travel online or by themselves.
Boost to the UK economy
With 100 million Chinese citizens predicted to travel abroad each year by 2015, according to the World Tourism Organization, the boom in Chinese tourism offers a huge opportunity for the UK. VisitBritain estimates that Chinese visitors spent an average of £1,676 each per visit last year - almost triple the average spend for all other visitors to the UK.
The ability to shop tax-free in the UK has undoubtedly helped to encourage more Chinese visitors to shop here. However, some retailers are going to even greater lengths to appeal to the Chinese; Harrods recently started to accept payments from Chinese UnionPay cards, and Selfridges has employed Mandarin-speaking staff to provide shoppers with assistance in store.
Hotel owners are also making changes in order to provide a warmer welcome for guests from China. It is becoming increasingly common for hotels in the UK to offer visitors a selection of Chinese foods and teas, as well as newspapers and magazines, and translated tourist information.
A greater understanding of the Chinese is also helping hoteliers to improve the experience offered, with hotels operated by the Doyle Collection even taking superstition about room numbers into account. While number 13 may considered unlucky by many people in the UK and other countries, in China the number four is viewed as unlucky, so Doyle Collection hoteliers will avoid allocating Chinese guests in rooms that include a four or ones that are on the fourth floor.
Globally, we have seen hotel chains such as Four Seasons, Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental, Marriott and Starwood modify their offerings to make them more inviting for Chinese travellers. One of the best known programmes is Hilton Huanying - a consistent set of amenity and service standards that meet the Chinese traveller's needs and expectations when travelling abroad. The Huanying programme offers amenities and services ranging from Mandarin-speaking staff members, to in-room amenities such as a kettle, slippers and Chinese tea, and a Chinese style breakfast.
Hoteliers are also considering Chinese audiences in their marketing by ensuring that their websites and marketing materials are available in Mandarin, and running campaigns focused on targeting the modern Chinese traveller. LUX* Resorts recently hosted a high profile press trip targeting journalists from travel and leisure magazines that have a strong readership in China.
While some hoteliers are certainly going beyond what is expected, in an incredibly competitive global market it is essential that the UK is doing everything it can to encourage more visitors from China to holiday here. Making the experience as inviting as possible is a good place to start, and it's pleasing to see that the government is making progress, however there is still more that can be done to attract Chinese visitors to our shores.