The ninth edition of the Austrian Winter Sports Days event – this year added to the agenda of the 2018 EU-China Tourism Year – will be held between February 2nd and 4th at the Songhua Lake Resort in the Chinese province of Jilin and see cooperation between Austrian and Chinese winter sports and lifestyle professionals. With interest in winter sports gaining pace in China four years before the opening of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games, the annual gathering has established itself as the central networking platform for the Austrian-Chinese winter sports community. With last year’s race being won for the first time by a Chinese athlete, the true winner was Austria itself, which was able to promote its image as a world-leading winter sports destination. However, while the February 2018 event is expected to further promote Austria’s reputation for winter travel, there are nevertheless other segments of the Austrian tourism industry that can also benefit in the long run from the growing numbers of Chinese visitors to the country.
With its neighbours Germany and Switzerland receiving 1.2 million and 770,000 Chinese visitors respectively in the first three quarters of 2017, Austria’s equivalent total of 694,000 leaves it as third-placed among Chinese tourists behind its German-speaking neighbours. Nevertheless, this figure is almost twice the 384,000 recorded in the equivalent period during 2014, comfortably outstripping the growth rates witnessed by Germany and Switzerland, which have suffered in recent years amidst perceived security concerns among Chinese travellers and the increased strength of the Swiss franc.
Austria’s impressive growth has seen it take its place among Europe’s fastest-growing destinations for the Chinese outbound market, with the widespread enthusiasm for 1955 film Sissi and the country’s architecture, art and music inherited from its imperial past drawing visitors to cities such as Salzburg, Innsbruck and Vienna.
With Austria having been awarded with a YouKu and Weibo-sponsored “Hottest Destination in Europe” award in 2017 and its increased focus on the Chinese winter tourism market, the country can also expect to enjoy further arrivals growth among the estimated 15 million skiers in China’s consumer class.
However, what is equally as important as growth in numbers of Chinese arrivals, is also the quality of Chinese tourism to the alpine nation. With Austria’s decline in secure snow regions affecting winter sports facilities, Chinese tourists offer the country particular opportunities for sustainable tourism with many largely untouched resources.
Notably, the travelling seasons of Chinese tourists are different to those of Austria’s typical visitors; with most Europeans being drawn to the country by winter sports or summer hiking opportunities, the peak travelling seasons for Chinese customers are the February New Year and October Golden Week holidays. The rest of the year typically sees consistently steady tourist numbers. Accordingly, the volume of Chinese arrivals to Austria is less dependent on levels of snowfall or sunshine than other visitors. Typically citing city visits and cultural activities as their main reasons for coming, the country’s clean air can also prove to be a draw.
On the other hand, with Chinese tourists staying for an average of only 1.4 nights in the country, increasing average numbers of overnights should also be targeted alongside arrivals. This is particularly the case when the states of Tyrol, Vienna and Salzburg account for more than 75 percent of all overnight stays, while Carinthia, Vorarlberg and Burgenland account for less than 2 percent each. With younger and more experienced FITs being particularly interested in uncovering more novel, less-mainstream destinations for more individualised experiences, the Chinese market offers Austria an ideal opportunity to promote its hinterland regions and adapt its products to attract tourists for a longer stay.
The potential for success in drawing Chinese visitors to more rural destinations can be seen in the popularity of Swarovski’s Chambers of Wonder attraction or the UNESCO-listed town of Hallstatt – an identical copy of which has been rebuilt in Guangdong province – among Chinese visitors. With both destinations having successfully marketed themselves among the country’s must-see attractions, there is now great potential for tourism providers in less-populated areas to benefit from segments of the increasingly-experienced Chinese market. Rural health and wellness spas, for example, are well-positioned to benefit from the rapid growth of medical-related tourism in the Chinese outbound market, while SMEs producing local products can draw independent travellers seeking out high-quality, authentic goods.
Incentives equivalent to Switzerland’s Swiss Travel Pass – which provides tourists with unlimited travel on public transport and has proven to be a great boost to Chinese FITs – provide a blueprint for strategies that encourage more affluent Chinese travellers to visit regions beyond existing ‘must see’ landmarks and stay longer in the country.
While the way to the 2022 Olympic Games will most likely see a further rise in Chinese tourists coming to the country to engage in winter sports, the long-term benefits of Chinese outbound tourism to Austria may yet lie in less-explored areas, both geographically and thematically.