Lessons from England’s Unexpected Chinese Tourist Attraction

Kidlington is a typical English village with approximately 14,000 residents that suddenly started seeing Chinese tourists flooding its streets in 2016. What began as a vivid discussion on the village’s local Facebook page soon became a viral story that captured the extent of the boom of Chinese tourism to the United Kingdom as well as the opaque travel preferences of Chinese tourists when they visit overseas destinations.

Chinese tourists increasingly seeking out “authentic” experiences has become a common theme in conference discussions about Chinese travel trends. With popular destinations such as Venice and Tokyo struggling with overcrowding and insufficient supply of hotel rooms, not only Chinese independent travelers, but also Chinese tour operators have begun including lesser-known travel destinations in their itineraries. Even though this development has proven to bring Chinese tourists to lesser-known destinations, what could possibly encourage Chinese tourists to visit Kidlington, arguably an unknown destination, remained a mystery. What do Chinese tourists find so special about this English village?

Speculation ran rampant on what could possibly attract busloads of Chinese visitors to what Tim Ashley, a regular Kidlington visitor, describes to Jing Daily as an “unassuming, ordinary town in Oxfordshire that’s not got anything particularly special.”  Some online speculation suggested that Chinese tour operators have been falsely advertising Kidlington as a Harry Potter filming location, as well as the setting for various known British television drama series—but no evidence of such false advertising was ever found.

One of the interesting sights in Kidlington: locals' gardens. (Janis Harwood / Facebook.com)

One of the interesting sights in Kidlington: locals’ gardens. (Janis Harwood / Facebook.com)

In an interview with the BBC, a local resident explained that the Chinese visitors have “taken pictures of everything, houses, plants, absolutely everything,” and that pub gossip suggests that they all live in high-rise blocks in China, leading to the fascination with Kidlington’s garbage bins and detached houses. Indeed, ordinary life in Kidlington is nothing like ordinary life in urban China, and it’s certainly easy to make the argument that life in Kidlington is a better representation of life in England than what the tourists come across elsewhere during their time in the country.

In an attempt to finally make sense of the Chinese tourist onslaught of Kidlington, the BBC distributed a Chinese-language questionnaire to local residents, which they were asked to have filled by Chinese visitors they came across in the village. One of the respondents, a tour guide, quoted the houses and gardens as the biggest draws in the village, and said that they’re looking for the “true sense” of the country.

While the tour guide’s answers may explain why Chinese tourists are keen to take photos of local residents and their typically British houses, the reason why Kidlington of all Britain’s villages and towns were chosen for Chinese itineraries lies a 15-minute drive northeast of Kidlington: Bicester Village. While the name may imply that Bicester Village is yet another English village, it is actually one of the UK’s most popular tourist attractions among Chinese tourists, second only to Buckingham Palace. The Chinese tourist success of Bicester Village, an outlet shopping center run by London-based Value Retail, and its sister outlets throughout Europe helped propel the brand into the Chinese market—and Chinese customers can now visit the brand’s shopping centers in Shanghai and Suzhou in China.

It’s easy to disregard the curious case of Kidlington’s own little Chinese tourism “boom” as a one-off, but Kidlington’s story isn’t unique. In fact, Chinese tour operators desperately try to offer the most competitive itineraries—usually by adding as many items to them as possible. The average Chinese tourist is “money-rich, but time-poor,” so efficient use of their time abroad is a strong sales argument for any particular tour. As a result, tour operators often try to squeeze in extra activities between the main items on the itinerary to make them more attractive. In the case of itineraries featuring Kidlington, it’s safe to assume that they feature various sights in London in the morning, followed by a visit to the popular Bicester Village in the afternoon. Adding a short stop in a typical English village the tour bus drives past anyway doesn’t subtract much time from the shopping in the outlet shopping center, makes the itinerary more marketable, and provides visitors with a bonus experience to tell their friends about.

Although Kidlington has done little to profit from its sudden fame, in China, minor destinations that lie between popular tourist attractions try to leverage their geographic position by making themselves more appealing for tour buses to stop. It can be anything from putting up a statue of a local hero or building a small museum dedicated to a local legend, to simply offering some local delicacies or souvenirs that make a short stop more appealing and more profitable.

The Chinese tourism boom is often perceived as something only the “most-est” attractions and destinations can benefit from—whether it’s the most famous museum or the most popular shopping outlet. However, as the case of Kidlington proves, an unassuming village might just get featured in Chinese tourists’ itineraries as well. You could probably make the argument that Kidlington in fact is the most ordinary English village around, but arguably other towns along the same route could become pretenders for the same title—perhaps by raising a statue of a very ordinary resident—and replace Kidlington on Chinese itineraries.

It isn’t difficult to make jokes about Kidlington’s sudden Chinese tourist boom, but as much as it’s an entertaining example of Chinese tourism’s growth, it’s also an example of how smaller cities and towns can benefit from its growth. While Kidlington perhaps has yet to cash in on its newfound visitors, typical Chinese tourism routes present nearby destinations with a good shot at growing their visitor numbers by several orders of magnitude. Short stops may not seem like a worthwhile venture, but if a Kidlington entrepreneur sold local souvenirs to only a fraction of the Chinese tourists on the 10,000 tour buses that visited Bicester Village in 2014, that could’ve become a major venture. Of course, investing in the development of something truly noteworthy along the London-Bicester route, or any other major Chinese tourist route in the world, could very well become a major item on Chinese itineraries.

As the population of Kidlington can attest to, you don’t need to be a world-famous destination to successfully attract large numbers of Chinese tourists.

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Travel, Travel Trends