EU-China Year of Tourism: What are the challenges awaiting us?

China Plus Published: 2018-01-19 14:26:51
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By Xin SONG and Dr. Shaohua YAN

China is now one of the top priorities for Europe. As the future world-leading economy, China has been more and more appealing to the EU. Under this context was born the EU-China Year of Tourism in July 2016 at the High-level EU-China Summit in Beijing. Later this week in Venice Italy will take place the official launch of this bilateral initiative, aiming to promote Europe as a destination to the Chinese and vice versa. 

It might be high time for identifying the potential challenges lying ahead when it comes to EU-China tourism cooperation. 

An undated photo shows Roman Tower of Oberhofen Castle on Lake Thun, Bernese Oberland, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.[Photo:]

An undated photo shows Roman Tower of Oberhofen Castle on Lake Thun, Bernese Oberland, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.[Photo:]

Chinese tourists represent a very wide-ranging market in which co-exist all types of needs. It is very essential to understand certain groups or niche, especially their expectations and behaviours. Not a lot of people in Europe are aware of the big difference in terms of infrastructure, mobility, communication and payment between Chinese and European cities. Therefore efforts should be made to reduce Chinese tourists' feeling of "inconvenience" in Europe. For example, agencies can use Chinese social media (WeChat and Weibo) to promote and communicate online order systems and payment, food options, free wifi, etc. 

Europe is very rich in tourism resources. Tourists are intrigued by the authentic cultural experience and recreation in the nature. Meanwhile, it demands efforts made by the tourists to adapt themselves to different local contexts, in terms of languages and customs. This is even more the case for the Chinese tourists who travel very intensively across Europe within short periods of time. Thus it will be helpful to reduce the communication barrier by having Mandarin-speaking staff or Chinese audio guide apps that can be downloaded at sight-seeing spots.

If Europe wants to benefit more from the increasing number of Chinese tourists, it is essential to connect business operators from the two sides. So far tour agencies in China would prefer to operate with Chinese running tour agencies based in Europe. This might generate in the future some social problems due to the lack of involvement by the local economic actors. There needs a platform to build connection between the operators from two sides and facilitate communications as well as cooperation. 

How can the EU support its tourism sector to seize the opportunity? Despite its strong political willingness, Brussels has rather limited competence to move forward in practice. Legally speaking, after the Lisbon treaty, the EU is entitled to intervene but can only "support, coordinate or complement the action of the Member States" in the domain of tourism. 

Nevertheless, the final conclusion of the EU-China Visa facilitation Agreement, launched in 2017, can definitely lead to a rise of Chinese tourists visiting Europe. Actually EU member countries like the UK and the Netherlands have already relaxed their visa requirements for Chinese tourists and businessmen. And this EU-China Year of Tourism provides just a great occasion to scale it up. 

Chinese passports have a huge potential and it's rising quickly. It ranks in 75th place world-wide in 2018, up from 85th in 2017 and 137th in 2016. Since last year Chinese passport holders have enjoyed visa-free entry to Morocco, Ecuador and Serbia, as well as e-Visas to Turkey and Ukraine. Besides, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore have also all extended the validity period of multiple-entry visas to Chinese.  

The correlation between tourist attraction and visa-free is obvious. Take the example of Morocco. Since the visa-free police entered into force on January 1st, 2016, Morocco welcomed an increasing number of Chinese tourists, witnessing a growth of 300% in 2016 and 760% in the first half of 2017. 

The EU's reluctant attitude might be explained by its concern about illegal migration. Further bilateral discussions will be conducted to build up a cooperation framework to fight against it. 

But time is ticking. The competition to attract Chinese tourists is fierce. 2018 is also Turkey Tourism Year and the Canada-China Year of Tourism. 

(Xin SONG is a Brussels-based EU-China policy analyst. Dr. Shaohua Yan is a scholar from Guangdong Institute of International Strategies.)

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