With an estimated 80 million Chinese tourists heading overseas this year, and industry observers projecting continued double-digit growth in outbound travel, retailers and hoteliers in the UK have been eagerly courting this emerging (and free-spending) market. However, despite strong interest in Britain, China’s wealthy tourist-shoppers have often been more apt to travel to continental Europe, owing to the advantages of the Schengen visa program, which allows travel throughout 25 European member nations. Long one of the world’s top high-end tourism destinations, Britain — despite a more complicated visa process — is still proving popular among China’s high-end travelers, with a record 149,000 Chinese visitors arriving in the country last year and injecting around £240 million (US$389 million) into the economy. At the same time, while London in particular continues to beckon China’s elite tourists, the UK lags behind other top luxury magnets like France, which welcomed nearly a million Chinese tourists last year.
But things are changing, even if not quickly enough for luxury retailers. Last week, British interior minister Theresa May announced that the government is moving to simplify the visa application process by expanding online applications, making some forms available in Chinese, and introducing an express service. The British government is also planning to spend an additional £8 million in the hopes of bringing in 233,000 Chinese visitors a year by 2020, while the official tourism organization VisitBritain sent its largest-ever delegation to Shanghai in November to build buzz. London retailers have been quick to retool their efforts to cater to China’s new outbound traveler, particularly in the city’s luxurious West End.
The growing clout of the Chinese traveler in the West End has become starkly apparent this year. According to recent statistics, Chinese travelers now account for 16 percent of all tax-free spending in the West End, with their average transaction reaching £1,419 ($2,300), a 21 percent increase over 2011. This makes Chinese tourists some of the biggest spenders in the city, joining the ranks of the long dominant Russian and Middle Eastern visitors. As in Paris, fashion is the name of the game, with 87 percent of the average Chinese traveler’s shopping centering on fashion items.
Interestingly, the influx of wealthy Chinese shoppers being seen in the West End is somewhat older than in other parts of London. The majority of Chinese luxury shoppers seen on Bond Street, Mount Street and elsewhere in the district are in the 40-59 age bracket, while 51 percent of Chinese travelers in London as a whole are between the ages of 25-44.
So they’re mature, wealthy, fashion-focused and ready to spend. But what’s attracting the Chinese tourist-shopper in London’s swish West End, and what are retailers there doing to attract more?
Recently, Jing Daily was invited to visit the London Luxury Quarter, a group of top London hotels, dining and shopping destinations that encompasses opulent Mayfair, the famous flagship stores of Bond Street, St James’s & Jermyn Street, Mount Street, Savile Row, and Burlington Arcade as well as shops in the surrounding district including Selfridges on Oxford Street, South Molton Street, Brook Street, Burberry & Liberty London on Regent Street, Cork Street and Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly.
Five-star accommodations in the quarter include landmark hotels The Connaught and Claridge’s, both of which are working to attract outbound Chinese travelers. With dozens (if not hundreds) of retailers, hotels, galleries and designers in the area, this summer the London Luxury Quarter launched an iPhone and iPad app, available in Chinese, designed to make it easier for Chinese tourists to navigate the area’s offerings.
This week, in our “Eye on London” series, Jing Daily will look at some of the brands, designers, hotels and restaurants in the London Luxury Quarter that are turning their attention to China’s sophisticated, seasoned traveler — the type who looks beyond the most visible brands and homes in on quality and craftsmanship over logos. Check back tomorrow for a look at what retailers on Bond Street and Mount Street are doing to roll out the welcome mat for China’s discriminating tourist-shopper, from Mandarin-speaking sales staff to signage and UnionPay terminals.