U.K., France Compete For China's Tourists

May 16, 2014

People from China are considered the world’s top tourists. Studies show that on average they spend more money than people from other countries do.

This is a relatively new development because China’s economy has boomed and government restrictions on travel have been eased. The middle class now has money. They want to see the world and of course there are millions of them.

The BBC’s China correspondent Carrie Gracie reports on what Britain and France are doing to attract them.

Note: Please download the Here & Now podcast or use the WBUR app to hear this interview.


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There's a lot of competition globally to attack Chinese tourists, because on average, they spend more money than visitors from other countries do. China's middle-class, with wealth to burn, wants to see the world, and the world is wooing them. Last year, nearly 200,000 Chinese tourists visited Britain. But could they U.K. be doing a better job attracting them? The BBC's China Editor Carrie Gracie has been in London and Paris to find out.


CARRIE GRACIE: It's an overcast morning. The coach has just set off from a hotel in Watford bound for the sights of London. I've been chatting to Scarley, who's here with her mother-in-law and with her four-year-old daughter, and I was wondering why out of all the travel destinations she picked the U.K.

SCARLEY: (Foreign language spoken)

GRACIE: She tells me she's really interested in British history, but actually she's already been to lots of other countries. It wasn't that the U.K. was top on her list of destinations.

Only 20 years ago, Chinese simply didn't go abroad unless it was for work or study. But now, thanks to rising disposable incomes and a relaxation of Chinese government restrictions, Chinese visitors are the biggest force in world tourism, both in numbers and in spending.

CHRISTOPHER RODRIGUES: Well, Chinese tourism is one of the great growth stories of the world.

GRACIE: Christopher Rodrigues is the chairman of Visit Britain, which promotes tourism into the U.K.

RODRIGUES: The last 12 months we got just under 200,000 visitors. We'd like to get to 500,000 by 2020. So that's two and a half times. We need to be ready for them in this country, and we need to be ready to process those applications overseas in China.

GRACIE: So we're standing now between Westminster Abbey and the houses of parliament admiring Big Ben and it is pouring with rain. But that's not getting in the way of our photo opportunity. The group loved the fact that there's so many old buildings in London, and loved the clean air.


GRACIE: The air is great and the buildings are great and these are things that are not on every single corner at home.

But before we celebrate winning hearts and minds among Chinese tourists, stop, think, competition. Let's take a look at France.


GRACIE: Given the distances Chinese are used to travelling at home, let at alone abroad, it's just a hop and a skip between London and Paris. But none of the passengers I see dragging their suitcases through the Eurostar departure hall are Chinese. The way the visas work, it's easy for Chinese visitors to combine a trip to France with a grand tour of Europe. But it's much harder to add a British adventure to the mix.

LENA: I can go to many, many place, many, many countries here. It's very, very convenient and very easy.

GRACIE: Lena is a young professional buying Parisian makeup and handbags. One visa allows her to shop in 26 European countries. But the U.K. insists on a separate visa.

LENA: I hope one day I can from Paris I can take the train and go to London I hope.

GRACIE: So it's time to check in on our tourists in London. And when it comes to food, there is no amount of persuading that will convince a Chinese visitor that British is best.

WANG CHUNJIE: (Foreign language spoken)

GRACIE: Wang Chunjie is prepared to try British food. I think he probably remains to be convinced, but he's going to give it a try. The only complaints I've heard from this group so far are slow service and a fear of pickpockets. That's a message you hear from many Chinese tourists. And they all carry wads of cash, and there aren't as many police here as back home, so they feel vulnerable.

Later today, it's Tower Bridge and the British Museum, and then in the next few days, Cambridge, Oxford, Stratford, and Belfast before they go home. My group are having a good time, they say, but their only message, make it easier for Chinese visitors to get a visa.

PFEIFFER: That's the BBC's China Editor Carrie Gracie.

HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.


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