1. Economics
January 8, 2015updated 19 Jul 2021 9:21am

Chinese visitors are shunning London

By City Monitor Staff

A report out this week from our intelligence unit brings mixed news from the world of tourism.

The good news is that China is now the world’s largest source of international tourists. Their custom is worth a fortune. And that growth isn’t slowing down any time soon.

The bad news – at least, from a British perspective – is that London is missing out on the boom. In 2013, New York recorded more than six times as many Chinese visitors than London, despite the journey requiring a longer flight. The British capital is receiving substantially fewer visitors than Moscow, Paris, and Rome – as well as less obvious tourism destinations as Vancouver, Brisbane and Cairns.

The report, “Cities and the booming China outbound tourism market”, is published this week by our partners at CityMetric Intelligence, an arm of Timetric. (You can see our data here.) It shows that the market for Chinese tourists is enormous business for cities. In 2013, it was worth $129bn worldwide, and made up 11 per cent of the total global tourism industry. By 2018, if trends continue, it’ll be worth $310bn.

These tourists, though, are not necessarily going to the places that you’d expect them to. Here are the 10 most popular destinations worldwide for which figures were available. For comparative reasons we’ve also included London, which ranks, er, 33rd.:

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Flight time is a factor, of course: you’d expect destinations in Asia to receive more visitors than those on the other side of the planet, so here are the top ten long haul destinations. London has now climbed the league table, all the way to 22nd place. 

To make this comparison another way: in 2013, around 94,000 Chinese tourists visited London. Around 130,000 visited Brisbane. 

London isn’t calling

So, why is the World’s Next Top Super Power rejecting London? Border controls are probably a factor: the UK visa regime is considerably less welcoming to Chinese tourists than those of many of its neighbours. The UK has also stayed out of the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone, so it’s harder to use it as a base to visit the rest of Europe.

The British government is at least aware of the problem, however. In September, it announced plans to refund the cost of visas to 25,000 Chinese tourists, in an attempt to attract more of them to its shores. And there are signs that numbers have picked up in 2014.

But the city has a lot to do if it’s to catch up with rival destinations across the Channel. Baroness Jo Valentine, chief executive of business group London First, argues that the government should do more to simplify the visa regime. The Home Office has said it’s looking into aligning the process of applying for a UK visa with the Schengen one, to make life easier for potential visitors: “A ‘one stop shop’ would make a big difference to the number of Chinese visitors coming to the UK,” she says.

The report contains a number of other interesting insights into the sorts of places the Chinese like to visit, and what you need to do to attract them.

Communist history is a big draw

By far the most popular destination in Europe is Moscow. This seems a little surprising, until you recall the Russian capital’s large profusion of sites of Communist historical interest. (Marx’s grave, in North London, is reported to be one of the few attractions that Chinese visitors really enjoy.) The city has also been making a special effort to market its wares to the Chinese market.

Diplomacy doesn’t matter

China has famously poor foreign relationships with Japan, which it blames (not entirely unfairly) for invading it and doing all sorts of unpleasant things back in the 1930s. But Tokyo remains an incredibly popular destination for tourists, receiving more than 850,000 visitors in 2013.

So does Taipei, the capital of the “Republic of China” (better known as Taiwan), which received around 825,000. In other words, a poor political relationship doesn’t necessarily put off the punters.

A sense of security helps

The number of Chinese visitors heading to Bangkok fell by nearly a third in the first five months of 2014, following concerns regarding political unrest. Thailand’s military government has since decided to waive visa fees, in an attempt to turn this round.

Paris, too, dropped down the rankings following a spate of attacks and muggings. This summer, in an effort to ease concerns over the safety of tourists, Chinese police joined local officers patrolling busy tourist areas.

Direct flights help more

Cities in Spain barely appear on the list. That’s not because of any unreported breakdown in Sino-Spanish relations: there simply aren’t that many direct flights, making a visit from Shanghai to Barcelona or Madrid a bit of a pain.

The good old UAE

Visitors to Dubai have increased rapidly, from under 100,000 to over 270,000, in under five years. Abu Dhabi remains a very long way behind, receiving less than a fifth of the visitors recorded by its glitzier neighbour, managing only 45,000 in 2013. But it’s growing incredibly fast, and in the first eight months of 2014 recorded over 75,000.

This rapid rise is explained in part by the Chinese government’s decision to grant “Approved Destination Status” to the UAE in 2009. The presence of all those luxury hotels and shopping centers seems to be helping too, mind.

Marketing helps

New York is by far the most popular long-haul destination  for Chinese visitors, receiving more than 600,000 visitors in 2013. In December, Chris Heywood, a senior vice president at marketing board NYC & Company, describes China as “a key market for NYC tourism”, and notes that it’s the fourth largest market for the city overall. “It has seen a 400 per cent uptick since 2009,” he notes – and it’s “on track to welcome 743,000 visitors [in 2014]”. That, for those keeping score, is another 15 per cent growth in one year

The Big Apple has obvious attractions to tourists, but it’s also been working hard to attract them too. Its hotels have been offering Chinese style breakfast, while state officials have been presenting workshops to help the city’s travel agents become “China ready”.

If London wants to attract more Chinese visitors, it could do worse than follow New York’s example. In fact, claims Robin Johnson, the director of the China Project at Visit Britain, it already has. “We’ve stepped up our activity considerably in China over the past 18 months to further increase visits, not only to London, but crucially across the whole of Britain.” He adds that the average Chinese visitor spends longer in Britain than in other European countries, spends more, and is more likely to travel to other parts of the UK.

Nonetheless, the fact remains, that China will be the most important rising power of the 21st century, and its population are shunning London. If the British capital wants to remain a world city, that will have to change.

You can see our data here. To request a copy of the full CityMetric Intelligence report, “Cities and the blooming China outbound tourism market”, please contact Danny Richards on info@timetric.com.



1) For the purposes of this article, we’ve excluded visitors from the “special administrative regions” of Hong Kong and Macau.

2) We’ve excluded destinations in Germany and Austria, as their authorities include arrivals from Hong Kong, making direct comparisons difficult.

3) Where destinations have an asterisk attached, CityMetric Intelligence has estimated 2013 figures based on 2012 data and tourism flows at the national level in 2013.

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