Very soon around 100 million Chinese tourists will have traveled outside their country every year. This is a market that is valued more than US$ 100 billion per year, says Atout France, the French Tourism Development Agency. But for European countries it would be wrong to rest on their laurels because Chinese tourists are increasingly demanding.
Some 538,000 Chinese tourists chose Italy in 2013 and another 425,000 picked France, says CeSIF, the Italy-China Foundation’s Business Study Centre. A major global competition is at stake to capture this new tourists flood. The first priority: being more “Chinese-friendly.”
Never in history has an “invasion” been so desired and courted. The flood of Chinese tourists is peaceful and it’s worth US$ 102 billion per year, writes Atout France. Some 98 million Chinese tourists have travelled outside China, according to CeSIF. The World Tourism Organization has already announced that in 2012 China became the top market in the world for outbound tourist spending, overcoming the United States and Germany. According to the latest data from Global Blue, the Switzerland-based tax refund and shopping service provider, the average spending of outbound Chinese tourists last year was US$ 1,218, with Russia coming right after.
It’s in this spirit that Le Figaro in 2011 launched a free quarterly luxury magazine for Chinese tourists named Paris Chic. It is published in Chinese and distributed in China and France, and is a true guide for fashion, beauty, watches and gastronomy. In Italy one of the main newspapers, Corriere della Sera, did the same thing, printing a publication that targets Chinese travelers. Also the Italian publisher Class Editori made the same choice with a quarterly luxury magazine named Italy’s Excellence. The same business and financial news publishing house has launched a campaign to have street signs in Chinese before Milan’s Expo 2015, so Italy can be more “Chinese-friendly.”
Atout France says that about 80 percent of Chinese tourism is made of groups, which includes small groups of 8 to 10 friends, although the share of individual travelers continues to grow. “At first they used to visit something like 10 to 11 countries in a row, for just 10 days. Now, this quantitative approach is less dictatorial and during a European vacation Chinese groups tend to visit three to four countries, looking for more quality,” Italian hotel marketing consultant Giancarlo Dall’Ara says. Now, Chinese tourists want to know the country they are visiting better, spending their vacation in one or two destinations. They love themes, such as the discovery of wine, museums and the country life of Europe. The Expo will be in Milan, but Italy might prompt Chinese people to discover Florence, Tuscany wineries and Venice as well.
Unfortunately, from the point of view of several Chinese tourists their first foray into European countries was quite disappointing. They have dreamed all their life of Versailles and the Coliseum, but very often either for reasons of cost or the lack of high-capacity hotels in the centre of cities like Rome, Paris and Madrid these groups are dispatched to the not-so-smiling suburbs. Then there is the visa problem.
A 30-year-old Chinese executive working in Beijing admits that a trip to France was a disappointment. “I remember a lot of negative things, starting from the train you have to take from Roissy to the capital: horrible and unpractical,” he says. Yan Wang, a Chinese entrepreneur in the wine sector, agrees. “In Italian hotels, you don’t even have a kettle for making tea, which is essential for Chinese people.” “Italy, as other countries in Europe, is not Chinese-friendly,” Dall’Ara admits.
Yet, the target for Italian, French and Spanish tourism is precisely Yan Wang. Chinese individual trips started to grow two years ago. In 2012, visas issued from France increased by 30 percent. People who can afford it have all the paperwork done by Chinese travel agencies such as Ctrip, one of the biggest online travel agencies. Of course, several global travel and tourism companies are developing strategies for gaining a share of the country’s booming market.
The number of tourists to France and Italy are underestimated because they do not include entries from other Schengen Area countries. A Schengen visa allows a person to enter the country which issues the visa, and then travel freely throughout all Schengen countries. Some countries are much easier to obtain a Schengen visa from, even though the process is supposed to be standardized. A recent study of Trump Agency in Beijing estimates France can accommodate 1.8 million Chinese tourists in 2013-14. Italy can host 1 million Chinese tourists for the exhibition. In 2012, the Italian Embassy in Beijing processed just 286,000 visas. Italy is committed to welcome as many Chinese as possible and it has recently opened more offices in order to process more visas. “They have opened two new offices in order to release visas in three to five days. I think it is a step in the right direction,” Dall’Ara says.
Particularly, efforts from all the Schengen countries should be focused on visa facilitation. The procedure for the Schengen visa remains complicated. In a European Tourism Commission report titled Understanding Chinese Outbound Tourism, one interviewee said: “Given the long and tedious visa process, it’s not worth going there for a short period of time.” This tourist’s words reflect a common frustration with European visa procedures. They require a lot of documents, such as proof of deposit from a bank, confirmed hotel reservations, permission to take leave from work and so on. Some embassies do not even have Chinese application forms. It’s clear that this is a significant disadvantage for European tourism.
A 2010 report by the European Tour Operators Association found out that 26 percent of potential Chinese visitors to Europe cancelled their trips due to the slow processing of Schengen visas. The visa processing at the British embassy, which is not a Schengen member, was listed as the most difficult, followed by France and Italy. Germany was ranked the best consular authority for being fast and friendly.
The European Tourism Commission report notes that despite all Schengen countries having the same basic requirements, Chinese travelers note marked differences between them. Entire online forums are dedicated to this topic, meaning Net users know which embassy offers the fastest and smoothest application process. The Internet generation has fewer barriers to independent travel in Europe because it can tap into collective online knowledge. This means that to attract Chinese tourists, a truly global visa fight is taking place.
*The author is a news anchor and columnist in Milan, Italy. The opinions expressed are hers.
**Read the original op-ed at Caixin.