Finally, Beijing has dropped its Covid restrictions and the Chinese are free to start travelling again and, in the UK and around the world, the travel industry is wondering what we can expect for this year. To help answer that question, here are Guanxi’s top five predictions for Chinese visitor figures to the UK, timing, size of market, trends, opportunities and challenges for 2023.
In 2019, around 880,000 people came to the UK from China, staying an average of 16.33 nights and spending £1,937 per person. This made China the second most valuable inbound travel market for the UK. As an added benefit, the Chinese were more likely to travel around the country, overindexing vs other markets in travelling to Scotland. Many places, including the Lake District, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, York, Brighton and, of course, London, have really missed their Chinese visitors over the past three years.
So what do we think will happen now?
VFR and student markets will be the first to recover, followed by FIT and small group travel
- There are around 150,000 Chinese students at UK universities. Some will be keen to go home for a holiday but, in many cases, their families will come to the UK to visit them.
- There are Chinese families living in the UK and numbers have been boosted by immigration from Hong Kong. It is hard to get accurate figures as the last published figures are from the 2011 census and state 393,000, but we can assume that friends and relatives will be keen to visit after three years apart.
- Once leisure travel restarts in earnest, expect to see small family groups and independent travellers. Large group travel will be last to come back. It presents a perceived risk to tour operators (who would be required to take responsibility of the entire group in the event of a Covid outbreak) and to the travellers themselves. The Chinese government policy on overseas group travel also remains unclear at the time of writing. It was banned in early 2020.
The surge in Chinese leisure arrivals to the UK will be seen from May/June onwards (but it could be earlier)
- The market can’t recover without affordable flight seats. In 2019, there were 86 weekly air departures to China, 30% of which were Heathrow-Beijing. Flight capacity dropped by 95% in 2021, so we went from about 25,000 seats per week to fewer than 1,500. Flights are still very, very expensive and prices need to drop significantly. Airlift recovery is a big mountain and it won’t be climbed overnight.
- There are added complications for European carriers. Unlike Chinese carriers, they now have no over-flight rights for Russia. This means an additional two hours flight time and extra cost, making the route uncompetitive vs the Chinese carriers. In this environment, will British Airways and Virgin Atlantic consider the route to be viable?
- We can assume that the reinstatement of capacity for Chinese carriers, and a subsequent fall in prices, will happen in line with demand. There are also indirect routes to the UK via the Middle East, so the more determined (and affluent) will be able to get to Europe in the meantime.
- Passport offices have not been issuing new passports or extending current passports. They have now reopened. If you don’t have validity on your passport, you will have to wait.
- You need a visa to travel to the UK. UK visas cost around £100 and are valid for 2 years. There will doubtless be delays at visa offices as demand will overwhelm the system.
- You can not apply for a visa without a passport and a flight booking. So these issues have to be resolved first.
The summer will be strong and long
- In 2019, 44% of visits from China took place July-Sept, with a further 19% between Oct – Dec. The summer is the best time to visit the UK for Chinese people due to the weather and the school holidays. Those who have been dreaming of a trip to the UK for the past three years will likely have big plans and big budgets. They will plan their dream holiday for the summer.
- Demand will be strong. People have been prevented from leaving China due to travel restrictions, but, unlike the rest of the world, many have also endured severe lockdowns within their own homes during the past 12 months. Covid has taught us all about the fragility of life and the benefits brought by the freedom to travel. It has also taught us about unpredictability. There will be a strong desire to travel far, have great experiences, and to do it now, because nobody knows what the future will bring.
- Slightly worse weather in Europe in October/November will not be as strong a deterrent for people this year. We therefore expect that the peak summer season will be longer than in previous years, and will extend to include Golden Week in early October in bigger numbers than pre-Covid.
Experiences will trump shopping (but people will still shop)
- Spend on luxury goods in China rose to US$74.4 billion in 2021, almost double the 2019 figure. Most of this was spent online or in duty free shopping meccas such as Hainan Island which exploded during the pandemic. We can expect that these channels will continue to flourish, and that Chinese people will continue to shop in this way.
- Consumer sentiment in China points towards a post-Covid desire for more meaningful activities. There is also more interest in sustainable travel options.
- Like the rest of the world, the Chinese have come to appreciate the natural world more than ever before. The big booms in China during Covid have been in rural tourism, cycling, hiking, camping and glamping, and, to a lesser extent, niche activities such as surfing, diving and wintersports.
- In the second decade of the 2000s, there was a movement away from ‘ticking off the sights’ when travelling, a rise in independent travel away from large group travel, and a growing trend to discover new and interesting places with a local flavour. Enjoying local food and wine, natural scenery and local cultural experiences became major motivations to travel, and these persist post Covid.
- There is no doubt that the Chinese love to shop when they travel, but the primary reason for travelling the UK has never been the shopping. Added to that, the UK government’s decision to cancel (then reinstate and then cancel again) the tax free shopping scheme for overseas visitors makes the UK less attractive as a shopping destination. Whilst shopping will continue to be a very popular activity for those who come to the UK, it is likely that more time will be allocated to building memories and experiences than ever before.
VisitBritain and the UK travel trade are going to have to fight for this business
- Whilst most of VisitBritain’s promotional activity in China ceased during the pandemic, many other European countries maintained some level of spend. Germany, for example, continued to promote itself throughout the pandemic, with livestreaming, events, online training, PR and social media campaigns, understanding the importance of loyalty and commitment to China and capitalising on the fact that millions of future travellers were sitting at home with time to dream about their next trip and research and discuss ideas on social media. As soon as the talk turned to flight schedules increases and quarantine reductions, other tourist boards swung into action. For example, in November, Switzerland put on a major roadshow in 12 Chinese cities.
- Now the borders have opened, the predicted ‘bun fight’ has begun. Media outlets are overwhelmed, influencer schedules are filling up and every destination, attraction and tourism brand in the world will be vying for travel agents’ time for meetings and roadshows at a time when these same agents are suddenly busy with new customer enquiries.
- The strength of a country’s ‘China Welcome’ is going to be one of the most important factors for the leisure traveller choosing their destination. Safety continues to be a major consideration and this will move away from worries about contracting Covid towards worries about whether the tourist industry and local population will be friendly towards Chinese visitors. Hopefully, the British public will be open-minded, friendly, and reassured by the pre-arrival testing in place. Conversely, the policy may present Britain as less welcoming than other places.
- British tourism needs to restart its promotional plans in China and quickly. Messaging should be around Britain’s natural beauty, cultural heritage and, most importantly, its friendly welcome. We need to keep a close eye on trends to see if domestic travel trends convert into international ones. Hiking, glamping and cycling companies could be making hay while the sun shines this summer.
With grateful thanks to Midas Aviation for their insight into UK-China flight operations.