China's long-awaited reopening following the Covid-19 pandemic has raised a puzzling question: Where are the crowds of Chinese tourists in Europe? While data reveals a cautious return to travel among Chinese nationals, there are signs of gradual recovery across European destinations.
According to travel data firm ForwardKeys, the number of Chinese travelers to Europe during the recent May Day holiday period was 64 percent lower compared to 2019.
Tourism Economics, a research and analysis company, similarly reports that Chinese arrivals in most European destinations during the first half of the year remained over 60 percent lower than 2019 levels.
David Goodger, managing director for Europe and the Middle East at Tourism Economics, says: “There was an initial rebound towards the start of the year, and notably around the Lunar Chinese New Year, which we understand to have largely involved visits to friends and relatives, but growth has not continued.”
Goodger says that this lack of continued growth is not entirely unexpected. The recovery process was always anticipated to be gradual, as was the case “for other markets after re-opening to international travel, and especially so for those that delayed opening later than average.”
Wolfgang Arlt, director of Hamburg-based China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, identifies the scarcity and high prices of air tickets, along with lengthy visa application processes, as major obstacles to the recovery of Chinese outbound travel to Europe.
Arlt points out that the slow visa process by European governments has led to frustration among potential Chinese travelers, highlighting a growing divide between government interests and the private tourism and hotel industry.
Despite the decreased footfall, Chinese tourists in Europe have been exhibiting greater spending patterns. According to data from VAT refund provider Planet, cited by UBS bank, the average transaction value in March surpassed 2019 levels by 28 percent. This shift in consumer behavior suggests that Chinese visitors who do make it out have become more willing to spend and are less price-sensitive.
Analysts say the gradual return of tourists predominantly comprises affluent individuals and business travelers who possess the means to embark on unconventional journeys.
Amrita Banta, managing director of Agility Research and Strategy, a Singapore-based consultancy, says: “HNWI (high-net-worth individual) Chinese and business travelers are more likely to afford the expensive flight tickets, some of them are holding an overseas passport too, which allows them to travel abroad easily.”
Since most Chinese travelers in Europe tend to be HNWI or business travelers, Banta says it makes sense that the average transaction values are up.
The firm’s TrendLens Report indicates that more affluent Chinese consumers are also looking for “experiences” over “shopping,” and this is one of the shifts in consumer behavior after the pandemic, she adds.
Another noticeable trend that has emerged is the rise of independent Chinese travelers, who are exploring Europe through connections established with Chinese residents and students already living there, often friends or family ties.
Dora Qian, who arrived in the UK to study in 2010 and has been residing in London since 2015, shares her experience of hosting different groups of relatives and friends this year.
"Some of them are visiting for the first time and are primarily interested in iconic attractions in London, while others who have visited multiple times are eager to explore off-the-beaten-track destinations and discover hidden gems such as Northern Ireland, Cornwall, and Dorset in the UK," Qian says, adding that most of her guests have budgeted between £5,000 and £10,000 per person for their trip.
"After being unable to travel abroad for the past three years, most of my relatives are ready to indulge themselves and treat this trip as a special occasion after the pandemic," she continues.
Sienna Parulis-Cook, the Director of Marketing and Communications at Dragon Trail International, emphasizes the significance of the UK as the most popular destination for Chinese students studying abroad.
“This VFR (visit friends and relatives) market tied to the student population is definitely going to continue to be important, and offers great opportunities for getting Chinese visitors to see more of Britain,” she adds.
In 2021/22, China sent a record number of 151,690 students to the UK, more than any other country or alliance, including the European Union, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Parulis-Cook also notes that even before the pandemic, there was a growing trend among experienced Chinese travelers of venturing off the beaten path and visiting niche destinations, both in far-flung countries in Latin America and lesser-known towns in Europe. This trend is likely to continue in the future, presenting ongoing opportunities for such destinations, she adds.
While Chinese tourists are increasingly seeking less crowded and off-the-beaten-track destinations in China itself, she says iconic destinations and attractions in Europe will continue to be highly sought-after, with the sheer number of must-visit places requiring multiple trips.
Since February 6, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in China has released a list of 60 countries where group tours can resume on a pilot basis. Among these countries, there are 14 European destinations: Albania, Croatia, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland.
Emanuel Lehner-Telic, head of markets Asia-Pacific at the Austrian National Tourist Office, highlights the growing number of free independent travelers (FIT) from China, particularly as group travel in Austria is still restricted.
He points out that by the end of May, Austria had achieved a recovery of approximately 20 percent compared to the tourism levels seen in 2019. He also mentions that visa applications received at the embassy in Beijing by the end of June had reached pre-COVID levels, indicating a promising recovery in tourism.
He observes that Chinese travelers today are actively seeking outdoor activities, upscale and luxury offerings, personalized experiences, and opportunities to share their unique adventures on social media platforms.
“[Chinese travelers] have a desire to explore destinations and attractions that may not have been widely seen by other Chinese tourists. For instance, when visiting museums, they prefer to skip the line and enjoy individualized guided tours. Additionally, they may opt to have dinner within the museum premises and then appreciate the artwork or exhibits,” says Lehner-Telic.
According to Dragon Trail's China Traveler Sentiment Survey conducted in April, over 15 percent of respondents expressed their desire or plans to visit Europe in 2023, making it the most sought-after world region after Asia.
According to Dragon Trail International’s Parulis-Cook, “There is still a very strong appetite for travel to Europe, especially western European countries like France, Germany, the UK, and Italy. When policies and capacity allow, we should see a healthy recovery of this market.”
The recovery of Chinese tourism is expected to become more noticeable by the October holiday, with some European destinations potentially achieving full recovery by 2024, she adds.