Wednesday, 7 September 2016

BELGIUM: Chinese Tourists In Belgium

Chinese tourists are increasingly adding Europe to their travel plans, and the Belgian region of Wallonia wants to get in on the action. A new certification label aims to help businesses appeal to Chinese sensibilities.

Avoid assigning hotel rooms on the fourth floor, make sure the tea is hot and readily available and prepare plenty of green vegetables: these are just a few of the suggestions the government of Wallonia has for tourist businesses aiming to attract the growing share of Chinese tourists to Europe.

In a bid to win a larger share of that market, the French-speaking Belgian region has introduced a new tourism certification label, a first for the country, which will help the hospitality industry appeal to Chinese visitors.

Dubbed “Qualité Chine,” the voluntary program will help the industry’s various sectors – hotels, attractions, restaurants and shopping – to become “Chinese friendly,” according to a press release.

The label, recognized by China’s tourism sector, is part of wider program based in Hamburg, the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI). Its online training program helps businesses adapt their services to Chinese visitors, and offers certification recognized by the Chinese tourism sector.

Businesses that take part benefit from free services, including cultural training – which, for example, would stress the fact that the number four, associated with death, is considered unlucky in Chinese culture – translation services and other information. They are then promoted by COTRI in China, attracting the attention – and money – of interested travelers.

Emerging middle class

Presenting the new certification to around 90 tourist operators in the city of Namur on Thursday, René Collin, Wallonia’s minister of tourism, freely admitted that Wallonia wasn’t exactly a top tourist destination for visitors from outside Europe.

“Chinese tourists primarily come to visit the EU’s major capital cities,” he said. “But over the last several years, another type of clientele has emerged: the Chinese middle class, families and couples. These make up 15 to 20 percent of the Chinese tourists who come here.”

Richer than ever before, the rapidly growing middle class is eager to travel abroad and Europe is one of the top destinations, a representative from the Belgium-China Association told DW. Around 600 million tourists are expected to visit Europe by 2020, according to the latest estimates.

“More and more Chinese tourists are coming to Belgium, but we don’t really know them,” Marion Lemesre, the Brussels council woman responsible for commerce, said last year. “And they come to Europe for shopping. They have a significant purchasing power, and they especially love luxury items.”

In 2013, nearly 95,000 tourists spent an average of 1.5 days in Brussels, with many principally coming for the shopping, according to data from the Brussels tourist agency.

But they’re not just coming to the Belgian capital. Last year brought more than 41,000 tourists to Wallonia, on direct flights from Shenyang, Tianjin and Xian. Since June, tour operators in three additional cities have added the region as a destination.

Many have used the regional airport of Liège as a base for visits further afield to Germany and France, but Collin hopes the new program will convince them to add local sites to their itinerary. Tourism is a significant part of Wallonia’s economy, contributing 6 percent to the GDP and employing around 60,000 people.

“It stands to reason that we have to adapt our tourism offer,” Collin said.

But, as the Belgium-China Association points out, Chinese tourists are very particular – “they want their comforts, they want their own food.”

“You have to understand the Chinese mentality,” said the representative. “And Belgium isn’t necessarily ready to welcome these tourists.”

Hold the cream, please

But with some minor changes, Wallonia, and the rest of Belgium, wants to draw these tourists and tap into the lucrative market. Simple modifications, like including Mandarin alongside English and French on signs, or accepting the Chinese Union Pay payment system, are a start.

Other specifics, of course, will depend on the business. But they include such suggestions as providing electric tea kettles and Chinese TV channels in hotel rooms; audio guides – very popular in China – and tours that allow visitors to shop and see many things in a short time for museums and other attractions; and smaller portion sizes, a variety of green vegetables, food light on the cream and hot water on tap at restaurants.

“The Chinese customer is of such importance that at some point, we can’t just say that it’s up to them to adapt to us,” pointed out Collin. “It’s up to us to adapt to them, as well.”

Though “Qualité Chine” is the first such official program in Belgium, the country’s other two main regions, Brussels and Flanders, have also initiated informal training programs for hotels, restaurants and shops, all with the aim of bringing businesses up to speed on Chinese customs and preferences. A further initiative is the free biannual Chinese edition of the “Shop & Travel in Belgium” magazine, now in its seventh edition.