What my trip to Whitby revealed about Chinese tourism in the UK

Richard Bryan, Managing Director at Qa Research, saw global tourism trends at work by the sea – but says more lessons could be learned.

With its beautiful harbour, Gothic ruin and colourful history, Whitby is a wonderful place to visit. The town on the North Yorkshire coast has always been popular with families and we usually go a couple of times a year.

But on my latest visit I noticed something new. And it revealed a number of insights which tie in closely to the research work we undertake with UK tourism organisations.

Chinese tourism boom

What struck me was how many visitors from China were exploring the resort. There were scores of Chinese tourists taking in Whitby’s sights, sounds, food and drink.

This development certainly reflects a more general trend. VisitBritain is expecting 483,000 visits from China to the UK in 2019, up 43% on 2017.

And it is a trend likely to continue – research this year by TripAdvisor recorded an increase of 133% in Chinese travellers researching UK destinations between 2018 and the same period in 2019.

Interestingly, the Whitby visitors were mainly younger people, in their twenties, often in couples but without children.

This reflects a significant shift in the sector. As our research found, Chinese inbound tourism is now subdivided into distinct markets, including free independent travellers (FITs).

FITs have individual control over where they go and what they do, and are often affluent millennials.

Textbook attraction

One of the highlights of a trip to Whitby is the fish and chips. We called in to the famous Magpie restaurant for lunch – and many of the other tables were taken by Chinese visitors.

This may help to explain why so many had made the journey to the Yorkshire coast – after all it’s quite a diversion from more well-trodden tourist spots like London and Edinburgh.

Our research found that Chinese visitors want a uniquely British experience they can share with friends and family back home. And this is often tied to our culture, whether that means the royal family, famous fictional characters like Harry Potter, or food and drink.

Fish and chips is a must for many tourists from China, for two reasons. In 2015 Chinese president Xi Jinping famously tucked in to the national dish with then prime minister David Cameron.

And the meal is also an ever-present in the textbooks Chinese students use to learn English.

Any tourism destination hoping to increase its share of this lucrative market will benefit from finding a similar cross-cultural reference point.

Cash concerns

Clearly Whitby is doing something right to attract so many visitors from China. But I left with the nagging feeling that the town wasn’t maximising the opportunity.

During my trip I called in to a jewellers to buy a present for a family member made from the famous Whitby jet.

I was planning to pay with my phone, using Apple Pay – only to be told the shop didn’t take it.

This rang alarm bells. As VisitBritain puts it, “Mobile payments are becoming more and more popular in China, and travellers appreciate being able to use those abroad as well.”

I mentioned this to the shop assistant, who seemed unaware of the situation.

Chinese travellers are among the world’s biggest-spending tourists. This year they are forecast to spend £1 billion on UK high streets and leisure destinations.

And much of this buying spree is done via their mobiles, using one of two tech platforms – Alipay and WeChat Pay.

According to the Chinese digital marketing site DigiPanda, 60% of payments in the UK by Chinese tourists were via these mobile apps.

It was great to see a place like Whitby welcoming so many people from China, even on a chilly November day. For me, the town only needs to make a few modifications to its tourism offer, based on the insights our research into the market has revealed, to fully seize the opportunity on their doorstep.

Since writing this article we have seen China come in to focus due to the coronavirus and efforts at airports around the world to prevent it spreading. But let’s hope that the superb work undertaken by tourism organisations in the UK to welcome Chinese visitors is not too badly damaged and that before long the virus will contract and we can get back to business as usual.

Photograph: Postbyte on Pixabay

What we do

Qa Research undertakes a wide range of research, insight and evaluation studies for tourism organisations including visitor attractions, destination marketing / management organisations , trade bodies and associations as well as national parks, AONB’s and conservation charities.

Core topic areas include visitor satisfaction studies, new concept / product demand testing, pre and post advertising research and evaluation, membership insight, business barometer surveys, potential visitor perceptions, new brand development and brand refinement research and much more.

Find out more about the work we’ve done within the tourism sector by contacting Kathrin Tennstedt on kathrin.tennstedt@qaresearch.co.uk