What Transit Hubs Can Learn from Visit Finland and Helsinki Airport

    Finland has surrendered to the fact that it's not the hottest destination for Chinese travelers, but that doesn't mean it can't profit from them.
    Helsinki Airport wants to encourage spending among its Chinese transit passengers. (Courtesy Photo)
    Daniel MeesakAuthor
      Published   in Finance

    Helsinki Airport bets big on Chinese transit passengers by introducing Alibaba’s AliPay mobile payment solutions throughout the airport as it positions itself as a transit hub for Chinese travelers visiting destinations in Europe. Meanwhile, the Finnish tourism board is facilitating short visits—going against the conventional wisdom of trying to retain tourists for as many nights as possible.

    In spite of promoting itself as the home of Santa Claus and the Moomins, Finland may not be the hottest destination for Chinese tourists looking to visit Europe. In 2016, it received a number just shy of 200,000 visitors originating in China and Hong Kong, representing almost 5 percent of all foreign visitors in Finland. However, in terms of passengers at its capital airport, the numbers tell a different story: Helsinki Airport served over 500,000 passengers from China and Hong Kong between January and October last year, underlining Helsinki’s role as a growing hub for Chinese tourists.

    While the instinct for many tourists might be to immediately proceed to the gate for the next flight, Finavia, the operator of Helsinki Airport, is making efforts to encourage spending among these passengers. In collaboration with Alibaba, the airport has started rolling out its AliPay payment solution throughout the airport, which will allow Chinese tourists to use the AliPay app on their smartphones to make payments in the airport. Even though the program has yet to roll out to all retailers in the airport, some of the more notable shops such as Iittala and the Moomin store joined the launch back in December together with a handful of other retailers, adding up to a total of seven retailers accepting mobile payments by the end of 2016. The ambition, however, is to get all airport retailers to adopt AliPay payments—and according to the company, many of them are showing interest.

    “Chinese passengers are the most rapidly growing customer group at Helsinki Airport, and the group that uses the most money. We work hard to offer them the best possible service experience. Familiar and easy payment options increase the feeling of smooth and safe travel for Chinese passengers,” Elena Stenholm, director of commercial services at Helsinki Airport said in a company press release, emphasizing the growing importance of Chinese visitors at the airport.

    AliPay adds to a growing number of services at the airport catering toward Chinese travelers. UnionPay, the leading international payment network for Chinese bank and credit card holders, has been rolled out at almost all retail locations at the airport, already providing Chinese visitors with relative ease of payment.

    Other services and amenities available catered for Chinese passengers are the airport’s Mandarin-speaking service personnel, Chinese-language airport guides, and adding Chinese language signs pointing passengers in the right direction. The clear ambition is to provide Chinese passengers with a smooth airport experience, and, hopefully, to entice them to spend some of their Chinese yuan at retail locations in the airport.

    Chinese tourists spent the shortest time in Finland among all market segments in 2016. (Data from Visit Finland)

    Among the Chinese travelers who actually do step outside the airport after landing in Finland, most of them spend no longer than a night in the country—or 1.4 nights on average—putting China at the bottom of the list for average length of stay in the country. While easy to brush off as a failure to retain Chinese tourists for a longer period, short visits have actually been promoted by Finnish tourism authorities in Asian markets—framing Finland as a layover destination ideal for a short visit before continuing travels elsewhere in the region. Visit Finland’s official websites all feature information on how to make the most out of as little as five hours spent in the country, and provides suggested itineraries for short visits in the country. While convincing Chinese tourists that Helsinki is a more worthwhile destination than Paris might be a lost cause, nudging travelers toward spending at least a full day in the country could certainly help attract more passengers away from the terminals and into Finnish cities. Chinese tourists, known for being “money rich, time poor,” are perhaps the ideal candidates for such tours.

    For intermediary airports and destinations, much can be learned from Visit Finland and Helsinki Airport’s approach toward Chinese tourists. By making it easy for Chinese tourists to spend money and enjoy short, intensive tours in the country, mere transit passengers can serve a profitable market segment that doesn’t clog up accommodation and tourism infrastructure. If they like what they see, the might just come back for more—and longer.

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