Niche BRI countries become travel hot spots for Chinese tourists

Employees prepare food at the catering workshop of Do&Co, an airline catering company which provides airplane food for the Turkish Airlines. (Global Times/Xie Jun)

There was a time when most Chinese travelers' interests in overseas destinations were restricted to a few countries like Japan, South Korea, the US and several European developed countries.

But in recent years, these "traditional" travel routes are no longer enough to quench Chinese tourists' thirst to explore the world. Particularly, with the spread of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), many countries along the route which were unfamiliar to Chinese people in the past, have started to arouse Chinese travelers' curiosity.

Betty Qi, a 26-year-old Chinese white collar worker in Shanghai, took leave of one week and traveled to several cities in Turkey in the summer of 2018.

Turkey signed the BRI Memorandum of Understanding with China as early as 2015. The signing enabled exchanges and interactions between the two countries that went beyond formal governmental relations. In particular, the two countries started to do a lot of tourism advertising for each other, placing the tourist attractions of each into circulation in both countries' media platforms.

"I had seen a lot of information about Turkey in Chinese TV programs, such as the popular reality show Fancy Sister. There is also a Chinese song called Take You to Travel, and one of the lines of the songs says: 'I want to take you to romantic Turkey'. From those details I started to learn more about the country and one day my interest was strong enough to convince me to travel there to see for myself what the country was really like," Qi told the Global Times.

When Qi traveled in Turkey, she found that there were actually quite a number of Chinese tourists in Turkey, especially in the Cappadocia region.

"In Cappadocia, you can see many dressed-up Chinese people posing for pictures against the background of colorful hot air balloons there," Qi said.

In Istanbul, the capital of Turkey, it is also not difficult to hear Chinese accents or find Chinese tourists at renowned attractions such as the Hagia Sophia, the Global Times observed.

In 2018, about 400,000 Chinese tourists traveled to Turkey, up by 59 percent from the previous year, according to statistics provided by Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

"To be frank, 400,000 tourists (from China to Turkey) are too few. We hope tourists from China to Turkey will reach one million this year," Gayret Yuksel, regional sales manager of Turkish Airlines said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Turkey is just one example of how BRI countries formerly unknown to most Chinese tourists gradually become tourism hot spots for them. This in turn has provided many business opportunities for local companies, whether big corporations like airline companies or small ones, which are all mounting efforts to seize business chances from the country known around the world for its huge spending power.

BRI TOURISM

In general, BRI countries are becoming more and more popular among Chinese travelers. According to statistics sent by China's largest online travel agency Ctrip to the Global Times, Chinese tourists paid 27.41 million visits to BRI countries in 2017, compared with 15.49 million visits in 2013. This points toward an average yearly growth of about 15 percent, the Ctrip data showed.

Statistics provided by another domestic online travel platform Lvmama also showed that the number of domestic tourists who used Lvmama services to visit BRI countries in 2018 had surged by 38 percent year-on-year.

With traveling passion kindled, Chinese tourists, who are tired of typical outbound travel routes, are eager to experience things that they have not experienced before. Nowadays, Chinese tourists are seeking novel "tourism activities" including observing mountain gorillas in Uganda, going on safari in the national park of Tanzania, floating on the Dead Sea in Israel and tasting wines in Italian vineyards, Ctrip disclosed to the Global Times.

Wang Wei, co-founder of China's high-end travel service provider T-Bird, told Global Times, that apart from traditional tourism countries along the BRI route like Russia, some "niche" countries are also fast becoming of interest  among Chinese tourists.

"Two regions that saw the fastest growth in popularity among domestic travelers on the T-Bird are the Caucasus area, including countries like Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, as well as the Balkans region, including countries like Serbia and Croatia," Wang said.

"We didn't launch the Caucasus area travel products until this year, but to our surprise they are very popular among domestic customers, especially the younger generation between 25 and 40 years old. For this year's National Day holidays, three Chinese tourism groups organized by us will head off to the Caucasus area. The growing popularity of the Balkans region is also surprising, but what's different is that the Balkan area is of greater appeal to older people who are interested in the culture of the former Soviet Union," he said.

According to Wang, there are still some BRI countries whose tourism potential is yet to be tapped for Chinese tourists like Iran and Saudi Arabia. "The most prominent problems are difficulties in getting visas and lack of direct flights," he said.

BOOSTING ECONOMY

The rising interest of Chinese people in exploring niche BRI tourism destinations is giving renewed economic impetus to many of these countries, particularly for tourism-related industries.

Aviation is one good example.

For Turkish Airlines, the fall in Chinese business travel, as a result of the China-US trade war, is taking a toll on the company's business, but the boost in tourist outbound travel in China is becoming a robust growth point for the airline company.

"The percentage of Chinese travelers among all of our Chinese passengers has grown higher and higher in recent years, as they travel not only to Turkey but to other surrounding countries where Istanbul acts as a transfer station," Tuncay Eminoglu, vice president of sales (Asia and Far East) at Turkish Airlines, told the Global Times.

Executives from the Turkish Airlines also said the company is looking to open more direct flights between Turkey and Chinese mainland cities, based on the existing flights in operation between Istanbul and Shanghai, Beijing as well as Guangzhou.

RwandAir is also opening a new flight between Guangzhou and Rwanda, also a BRI country, on June 18. Guo Jiachang, China's president of RwandAir, said that although Rwanda is still a new tourism destination for Chinese tourists, several travel agencies have already planned to organize tour trips from China to Rwanda after the flight route is officially operational.

The inflow of Chinese tourists is also pushing BRI countries to perfect tourism-related infrastructure to attract more tourists, which acts like a cycle, industry insiders said.

"For example, the Sihanoukville International Airport in Cambodia used to be quite a backward airport, but after the inflow of Chinese tourists, the Cambodian government has invested money to construct and perfect the airport. Now this airport is operating increasingly better. I think this kind of impetus is very positive," Zhou Weihong, deputy general manager of China Spring Tour, told the Global Times.

She also cited the example of the Balkans area, saying that the region's tourism service has greatly improved as a result of Chinese tourists. "When I first visited the area around 2014, we couldn't find one guide in the area who could speak fluent Chinese, but now it's very easy to find such guides, expert not only at speaking the Chinese language but at hosting (Chinese) tourists," she said.

Wang also said that the inflow of Chinese tourists would "boost the economy of any country, particularly the tourism economy to a great extent."

"For example, during the Russian World Cup last year, Chinese tourists spent hugely in Russia. At T-Bird, a group of eight people placed a tourism order of about 1.5 million yuan ($0.2 million) during the Russian World Cup period," he said.

Editor: 曹家宁