EDITORIAL: ECTY 2018 and Chinese provincial tourism

The spirit of the 2018 EU-China Tourism Year can also provide a boost for provincial China

by Christopher Ledsham, M.A.

In light of the ongoing 2018 EU-China Tourism Year (ECTY), much has been discussed about the need for smaller and less well-known European destinations to find engaging means of marketing themselves as sites of culture and in-depth experiences in order to attract tourists to countries and regions that may not otherwise have been sought out by Chinese travellers.

As one of the key goals behind the tourism year, this policy not only looks to spread the economic benefits of Chinese outbound tourism throughout the bloc, but also serves to encourage visitors – especially those with more travel experience – that there are destinations worthy of seeing beyond those already struggling with the effects of overtourism, among them crowded cites such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Venice.

Among the Chinese outbound market, this approach has already shown to be particularly effective, since tourists from China may often have fewer preconceived notions of which destinations they should travel to and at which times of year they should visit. This is evidenced in countries such as Finland, Slovakia and Poland, where Chinese visitor numbers have not only grown exponentially in recent years, but they have also provided ongoing tourism business in the low and shoulder seasons that are typically less popular among travellers of other nationalities.

While marketing efforts to draw intrepid Chinese travellers to typically lesser-visited regions through the offer of more engaging experiences are prospering, little has been done so far to apply the same approach to draw foreign visitors to China’s lesser-visited regions through similar means.

During the week of the this year’s edition of the annual ITB Berlin exhibition, for example, I was a guest at a breakfast event held by the Tourism Development Commission of Hunan Province in the German capital’s famed Hotel Adlon Kempinski, which aimed to publicise the region’s touristic potential to industry attendees.

In looking to promote the province’s profile, speeches from a number of high-profile delegates from the region, ranging from the mayor of Yongzhou city and other political figures, saw numerous references to Hunan’s cuisine, culture and scenery – including the Zhangjiajie National Park, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site – while also making reference to the fact that former leader Mao Zedong was from the area.

Image credit: Tourism Development Commission of Hunan Province

While such material is certainly impressive, when audiences that are less familiar with the country are exposed to numerous provinces marketing themselves as destinations for extraordinary food, culture and sightseeing opportunities, they can struggle to appreciate what they might be able to experience in Hunan in comparison with the ‘China’ they might be able to be exposed to in areas with more internationally well-known ‘must see’ tourist sites, such as the Great Wall.

Where the parallels with ongoing efforts to geographically disperse Chinese visitors throughout Europe come into play, the strong potential that Hunan and other regional Chinese provinces have to establish themselves as leading destinations to draw visitors to China for a second time.

In the same way in which taking a pierogi-making class in Wrocław would better appeal to Chinese travellers who have already seen the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum on trips to Europe, a province such as Hunan could prove especially appealing to foreign travellers who have already satisfied their basic curiosity in visiting Beijing and Shanghai, but would now be open to engaging in a deeper cultural experience within the country.

Making a presentation at the event, COTRI Director Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt (who, having made his first visit in 1978, identified himself as a “long standing friend” of the province) underlined this reasoning as one of Hunan’s potential strengths in marketing itself as a tourist destination to an international audience. His speech emphasised that, in the year 2018, the vast majority of ‘well-travelled’ people have already visited China at least once in their lives, yet many would not yet have visited Hunan Province. He underlined that this more-experienced target group, therefore, would be more receptive to the idea of not only travelling to a lesser-visited province, but also more open to offers of in-depth cultural and experience-related activities.

Accordingly, in providing the correct market segments with compelling reasons to travel to destinations that are a little more ‘off the beaten track’, both China and Europe can position themselves more effectively in attracting visitors who can not only help spread the economic benefits of tourism, but also find a reason to come for a second or third time in place of rival long-haul destinations.

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