Kidlington, UK — Annabel Edwards, a British mother of four who lives in this quiet English village, remembers the first time it happened.
“There were 50 or 60 Chinese tourists walking up and down, in and out of people’s gardens, taking pictures of flowers and wheelie bins,” she says.
The mysterious visitors started taking an interest in her unremarkable street almost a year ago — putting her home of Kidlington under a rare international spotlight.
Rumors said the tourists were misinformed that Kidlington was a film setting for “Harry Potter.” Another report said they were left in the village after refusing to pay extra for a ticket to the nearby Blenheim Palace. The BBC said they were attracted by the quiet houses and gardens.
On average, Chinese tourists spend three times more than other visitors to the UK. Bicester Village, a designer outlet near Oxford, is one of the most popular stops among Chinese tourists.
No one seems to have the ultimate answer but one thing is for sure: Edwards and her fellow villagers encountered what’s perhaps been the biggest phenomenon to hit the global travel industry since the invention of commercial flight — Chinese tourism.
Last year, 135 million Chinese tourists traveled overseas spending a whopping $261 billion, way more than anyone else including Americans, who spent $122 billion, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
A weak pound post-Brexit, more flexible visa requirements and better connections with China have made the UK much more appealing to Chinese tourists. Some 270,000 visited the UK in 2015 — a 46% increase from a year earlier.
“I like everything about the trip. My favorite thing about the UK is its beautiful scenery — no matter it’s the countryside or the city,” says Fu Shenghong, who’s just returned from a group tour of the country.
Britain, like other European countries, is unfurling the welcome mat. Compared to other international travelers, Chinese visitors stay longer (15 nights compared to eight for other visitors to the UK) and spend more ($2,807 for each visit, three times more than an average visitor), according to Visit Britain, which promotes tourism.
Visit Britain is also trying to make the UK more “China ready.” Among the 500 businesses signed up for the Great China Welcome program are hotels that serve Chinese breakfast food and offer Chinese TV channels, and retailers that accept Chinese payment methods like UnionPay or Alipay.
While the selfie-taking, bus-travelling tourist stereotype isn’t completely off the mark — group travel is still very much in demand in China — there is an increase in individual travel and a growing desire for a more authentic travel experience.
“My best memory is a homestay with an artist in a hidden cottage,” says Ken Chan, an IT manager from southern China, who spent a month traveling around the UK last year.
As for the Benmead Road residents in Kidlington, Chinese tourists are still coming to their village once or twice a week but have stopped trampling on their flower beds. “It’s bizarre, funny but also very sweet,” says Edwards.