IT’S no secret that the Chinese love Europe; this year, almost double the number of Chinese tourists visited the continent compared to the same period last year, and as many as 5.5 million Chinese are projected to visit the region by year end.
The usual suspects – Rome, London, Paris, Frankfurt, and Barcelona – are kings when it comes to Chinese arrivals. Cities like Paris and Rome, for instance, record high spending figures for designer and high-end shopping, and are continually expanding their services to cater to the Chinese market.
However, lesser-traveled countries in Europe are seeing significant growth and could well shape travel trends in the region. According to data from the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), Serbia saw the highest year-on-year growth in Chinese arrivals in the first half of 2017 at 161.7 percent.
COTRI founder and director Wolfgang Arlt told Skift that Chinese travelers are getting tired of traveling and meeting other Chinese travelers on their trips. “This has come up again and again in our research. Chinese travelers want destinations to be ready for them and to see some Chinese but not too many,” he said.
Serbian agencies have noticed increased interest among Chinese travelers and will make efforts to collaborate with neighboring countries Montenegro and Hungary to offer joint tourism packages. Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said at a tourism fair earlier this year that more direct routes between Beijing and Belgrade will also be established.
“This will mean, along with the visa-free regime, a huge number of tourists,” he said.
Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications Minister Rasim Ljajic said that despite strong growth, there’s plenty that Chinese tourists don’t yet know about Serbia and what it can offer.
“A problem remains that Chinese people don’t know much about Serbia,” Ljajic said.
“They may know Belgrade or former Yugoslavia, but they don’t know what to see, what to do, or what to buy here.”
“I think it’s important that Serbia promotes itself in China so that Chinese people will get to know more about this country and, gradually Serbia will become a popular tourist destination.”
Besides Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Poland, Croatia, and Estonia also recorded spikes in Chinese arrivals. Arlt attributes the growth to simplified visa procedures, more direct connections, and information provided through Chinese platforms such as WeChat.
“More countries are getting opportunities to become popular in this fast-changing Chinese market. But it’s clear that the trend is to go to smaller European countries,” he said.
“Schengen countries continue to open more visa application centers in China that help to shorten the visa processing time and a number of countries in Europe outside of the Schengen agreement recognize the visa for entries into their country from a Schengen country.”
On top of that, the rise of China’s free, independent traveler (FIT) means that they’re scouring for off-the-beaten-track locations in Europe instead of crowding around the Eiffel Tower. The newer wave of travelers is more inclined to spend on “experiential travel” rather than just spending on luxury goods.
Asia Pacific vice president for Hotels.com Abhiram Chowdhry told Financial Times that for the first time in history, shopping is no longer the prime reason of travel for Chinese tourists. “The cliché of Chinese
“The cliché of Chinese travelers only being shoppers is reductive. It seems like they want more experiential travel.”
Meanwhile, visa troubles in the US coupled with Trump’s anti-China sentiment have propped Europe up as a more welcoming region. Recently, a significant number of Chinese travelers were getting their US visas denied since the Trump administration took over in January, Skift reported. This is a pattern noticed by China’s flagship carrier Air China.
Air China’s vice-president and general manager for North America Zhihang Chi said that there had been reduced demand for US flights and the airline may be forced to cut some capacity.
“The visa problem is of particular concern for me because people have a choice,” he said. “They want to come, but if they can’t, they go somewhere else.”