According to VisitBritain, more than 260,000 Chinese tourists visited the UK and total expenditure was more than £500 million in 2016. Forecasts are with the devaluation of the pound after Brexit, this will have risen in 2017 and will again in 2018. This is despite the extra expense and hassle of a British visa.
Merely during the Golden Week 2017 (a celebration of the founding of the Republic of China in October each year), Chinese tourists spent £29 million in the UK. The Chinese do not visit the normal tourist attractions, however, and there are good reasons why.
Firstly, Chinese visitors tend to be younger than the average visitor to the UK: half of Chinese visitors were aged 25-44 in 2016, and are more likely than average to be making their first visit. These young visitors seem have less interest in the cultural side, such as visiting museums and historic sites. Shopping at high streets and going for expensive afternoon teas are more appealing to them. They never worry about shelling out too much cash, as they always have solid financial support from their parents.
Secondly, though you might expect Chinese visitors would go shopping, and indeed they are present on both Oxford Street and Regent Street (70 percent of shoppers at Burberry’s flagship shop on Regent Street are Chinese), more popular still is Bicester Village, a shopping outlet in Oxfordshire, second only to Buckingham Palace. Unlike Buckingham Palace, it has no Royals, is not in the centre of London, has no changing of the guard, and was only built in 1995. So why do the Chinese like shopping in the UK, and why do they make sure a visit to Bicester is included in their visit to the UK?
Tax for luxuries is quite high in China – 30 percent for most of the luxuries like bags or clothes, and 60 percent for alcohols and tobacco, Chinese tourists always find luxuries much cheaper overseas.
For example, for a classic Burberry heritage coat, it costs around £1,200 in the UK, yet you have to pay more than £1,700 for it in China. Moreover, tourists can get an extra 10 percent of tax refund when shopping in the UK.
Chinese people have this mind-set: if they bought some luxury goods that had a big price difference, it equals earning a flight ticket from China to the UK. In effect, the holiday was for free. The Brexit devaluation in sterling merely made this saving greater. So more of them can come.
Many Chinese still like the idea of showing their identity by owning luxuries, including a lot of young people in their 20s. It is common to see young people wearing Chanel clothes or Chloé bags. I have a Chinese friend who bought a £1,000 handbag at Oxford Street after one of our classes (I am a student). On the other hand, young Chinese tourists seldom have interest in vintage style goods, which is popular among young people in the UK.
There are more direct and non-stop flights to and from China than ever before. Monthly airline seat capacity from China to Britain grew by almost 75 percent between 2011 and 2016, and has grown since.
- Bicester Village connections
While it’s true that Bicester Village is nearly an hour by train from London, it now has its own train station with direct trains from Marylebone Station in London and Birmingham New Street and the centre has welcomed millions of Chinese visitors in the past decades. Mandarin signs help non-English speakers, as do Chinese staff, coach tours all include it on itineraries, and they can pay using UnionPay.
- Adoring British Style
It may seem ironic to the British themselves, but many Chinese regard British style as elegant and intrinsically high-end. Brands like Burberry, Church’s, and Alfred Dunhill are popular among Chinese for these reasons.
The good news is that 73% of departing visitors are ‘extremely likely’ to recommend Britain for a holiday or short-break. There are certainly challenges to ensuring Chinese visitors keep the UK on the map for both students (such as myself) and leisure and business visitors, especially if rules change as a result of Brexit. For the moment, however, the UK is a growing destination for Chinese visitors.