Europe's hopes for busy post-COVID summer dim as Chinese tourists stay
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[March 20, 2023]
By John Revill, Rachel More and Joanna Plucinska
ZURICH/BERLIN/LONDON (Reuters) - Urs Kessler, who runs Jungfrau
Railways, a train that takes tourists up the highest mountain in
Switzerland, was excited for the return of Chinese tourists after
COVID-19 restrictions were lifted late last year.
But barring one small group in February and a few larger ones expected
in May, few have materialised.
Many tour operators like Kessler are disappointed by lower-than-expected
bookings from high-spending Chinese travellers who before the pandemic
would typically splash between 1,500 and 3,000 euros per person,
according to the Global Times newspaper.
Chinese outbound flight bookings to Europe during March and August are
only 32% that of pre-pandemic levels, according to travel data firm
The travel industry is also grappling with cash-strapped domestic
holidaymakers looking for cheaper vacations as energy and food bills
rise. This summer, the second since Europe's COVID restrictions ended,
is a test for airports and airlines, scrambling to hire staff and avoid
a repeat of last summer's chaos.
"There's still a long way to go to full recovery," said Olivier Ponti,
an executive at ForwardKeys.
"Chinese airlines are doing anything, everything they can to … operate
those routes. But, you need the staff, you need the slots, you need the
right level of service."
Kessler, who ran a marketing campaign featuring pianist Lang Lang
playing on top of the mountain to pander to the Chinese audience, is
hoping groups from countries like the United States, South Korea and
India will make up the shortfall.
Before the pandemic, Chinese tourism made up 10% of stays from non-EU
tourists in Europe, with the market growing 350% in the decade to 2019,
driven by a particular interest in luxury shopping and fine dining.
But bogged down by visa restrictions, long passport wait lines and
limited airline tickets to Europe, which are in some cases 80% more
expensive than before the pandemic, Chinese tourists are staying closer
Instead, they're taking their hard-earned pandemic savings to places
like Hong Kong, where arrivals were up 1,400% in the last two months, or
Thailand and Macau.
For the less wealthy, the price of getting to Europe is also a
"Cost is definitely part of the consideration. A lot of flights haven't
opened up yet - that makes it harder to look at going to Europe soon -
but we would love to travel outside of China more," Shanghai-based
Stephanie Lin, 33, told Reuters.
[to top of second column]
People walk outside Buckingham Palace in
London, Britain, March 15, 2023. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
BRING IN THE AMERICANS
Tour operators are looking to Americans, who, bolstered by a strong
dollar, are coming to Europe in droves. Some analysts predict
transatlantic travel to places like London and Paris could surpass
Sophie Lu, 26, came to London in early March from Hawaii and was
pleasantly surprised by how affordable the food was.
"I was not planning on splurging whatsoever, but when I got here I
kind of just noticed that there are a lot of things that America
doesn't have and it's a little cheaper from where I'm living," she
said, standing in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace.
On the Champs-Elysee in Paris, Colleen Danielson, 40, who was
visiting from Boston, said she was also more keen to spend because
of the dollar's strength.
"When we were in Dior, we were thinking should we make a bigger
purchase, a bag or something like that. The exchange rate does have
an impact," she said.
OPTIMISM FOR THE FUTURE
Many tourist operators and retailers hope the second half will bring
a relaxation in visa policies, more flights and the long-expected
influx of Chinese tourists.
Retailers banking on a gradual return are already running flashy
Harrods launched branded stickers, including its iconic teddy bear,
on China's popular WeChat messaging platform this year to attract
Bicester Village, a discount designer retail outlet near Oxford, is
also using WeChat to facilitate shopping trip planning and Chinese
Kessler believes his Lang Lang campaign was still worth it.
"I think it will go a little bit like an ice hockey stick," he said.
"The start of the year will be flat, but then pick up as we go
through the year."
(Reporting by Casey Hall in Shanghai, Mimosa Spencer in Paris,
Rachel More, Ilona Wissenbach and Nette Nostlinger in Berlin, Richa
Naidu in London; writing by Joanna Plucinska; editing by Christina
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