In the first year of the new millennium, a modest 10.5m overseas trips were made by Chinese residents. Fast forward to 2017 and the figure was 145m – an astounding increase of 1,380 per cent.
Now consider this: just seven per cent of Chinese citizens – or 99 million people – possess a passport, compared to around 40 per cent of Americans, and 76 per cent of Britons. Clearly the potential for further growth – China’s population is 1.415bn – is staggering, and it is estimated that by 2030 China will account for nearly a quarter of all global tourism.
But where are they going? The top overseas destinations are all short-haul: Hong Kong and Macau – special administrative regions of China, but considered “overseas” in the statistics of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) – are the top two; Thailand, Japan and Vietnam complete the top five. But those who make it to Europe have some peculiar towns and cities on their wishlist.
Ask your average Briton where in Germany they’d like to go on holiday and a few cities would quickly spring to mind. Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne. The castles of Bavaria, such as Neuschwanstein, Ludwig II’s masterpiece, are another option, while a knowledgeable few might express interest in the beaches of Meck-Pomm, Germany’s answer to Norfolk, or the Black Forest. For the Chinese, however, one destination rises above the rest: Trier. Around 150,000 visit the city every year, making it the most sought-after German destination for travellers from China.
Why is it so popular? This city in southwest Germany, not far from the border with Luxembourg, oozes history. Founded as “Augusta Treverorum” in 16BC, in its prime it was as thriving and important as Rome. Pomponius Mela, the earliest Roman geographer, called it “urbs opulentissima” (most wealthy city) and the Emperor Constantine made it his base for a decade. Remnants of its golden age can be found at its amphitheatre, where up to 20,000 people at a time were once entertained by bloody combat, its fourth century basilica, and its Roman bridge across the Moselle (still in use). Its nickname today? Rome of the North.
And then there’s the wine. The surrounding countryside is dotted with vineyards producing some of Germany’s finest plonk (riesling being the most common variety).
All of which is only of passing interest to Chinese visitors. They prefer to focus on a single day in Trier’s history: May 5, 1818. On this otherwise unremarkable Tuesday, Karl Marx was born at Brückengasse 664, a stone’s throw from Constantine’s former palace. That is why they come here in such vast numbers.
The father of socialism, Marx’s ideology continues to guide China’s government (as recently as last year, president Xi Jinping warned colleagues that abandoning Marxism would see their party “lose its soul and direction”) and he is considered a hero by many of its citizens.
Around a third of visitors to Karl Marx House, the philosopher’s former home and now a museum, come from China, while Trier’s shopkeepers cater to Chinese visitors by offering a bewildering array of Marx-themed souvenirs. A particularly popular spot for a selfie is a set of traffic lights at one end of the Fleischstraße; they display red and green caricatures of the 19th century thinker.
So important is the city to China that to mark the bicentenary of his birth, on May 5 this year, Trier unveiled a new statue of Marx – paid for by Beijing.
It’s all a little difficult for many Germans to digest, of course. Marx’s theories inspired the repressive communism practiced in the old East Germany (under the watchful eye of the Soviet Union) and the idea of celebrating his legacy feels ridiculous to many.
According to a 2017 VisitBritain report, more than 260,000 Chinese tourists visit the UK each year. And where do they go? It claimed that “they are mostly interested in symbolic elements: the Royal Family, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and Downton Abbey”. So expect crowds at Windsor Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, Baker Street, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and Highclere Castle.
Then there’s the shopping. Spending figures for Chinese tourists are truly staggering. According to the UNWTO, Chinese tourists overseas spent $261.1bn in 2016, up from around $10bn in the year 2000. Collectively, America’s globetrotters parted with a relatively paltry $123.6bn.
“Cynical young Chinese will scornfully tell you that the travelling middle classes pay lip service to appreciating culture, but they are mainly after the goods: specifically, European brands they can buy in situ, and bring home to lord over their non-travelling neighbours,” says Telegraph Travel’s Sally Peck, a former Beijing resident. “This may go some way to explaining the extraordinary spending figures.”
All of which reveals why Bicester Village, a vast retail estate on the outskirts of the Oxfordshire town, is the second most visited UK attraction for Chinese tourists – after Buckingham Palace. Three in four Chinese visitors head to Bicester aided by Mandarin signs and announcements at London Marylebone; others travel by tour bus.
The draw of Bicester Village’s also helps explain why in 2016 baffled residents of Kidlington suddenly found their otherwise unassuming Oxfordshire village overrun with camera-wielding tourists. Was it a link to Harry Potter? Something to do with re-runs of Inspector Morse? The reason turned out to be wholly logical. Chinese tour agencies have been marketing the village as a place which offers a “true sense” of England – while being close to the vast shopping centre.
This provincial town, around 70 miles south of Paris, certainly has its charms. There’s medieval architecture and a network of canals extensive enough for locals to dub it hopefully the “Venice of the Gâtinais” – the Gâtinais being the historic name of this agricultural region. But it can hardly compete with Versailles when it comes to luring daytripping tourists from the French capital. Unless you’re Chinese, that is.
Once again, it’s all political. Montargis was where hundreds of young Chinese scholars came to study in the early part of the 20th century, with the aim of learning more about the West and modernising their homeland. Among them were many future stars of China’s Communist Party, such as Deng Xiaoping, leader from 1978 until 1989, and Cai Hesen, a close friend of Mao Zedong. Mao himself also considered making the trip, but for some reason thought better of it (official histories say he had more to learn in China, but some claim it was because his foreign language skills left much to be desired).
Visitors can follow a tourist trail (with signs in French and Chinese) pointing out buildings such as the school Deng attended (now Montargis Town Hall), the rubber factory where he worked, and the gardens, complete with the cypress tree where Cai Hesen presented his ideas to other expat students about transforming China (he would later write a letter to Mao urging him to create a Communist Party).
King’s College, Cambridge
Another famous tree – for Chinese people at least – can be found in King’s College, Cambridge. The willow, ignored by most, is mentioned in a much-loved poem by Xu Zhimo, ‘Taking Leave of Cambridge Again’:
The golden willows by the riverside
Are young brides in the setting sun;
Their glittering reflections on the shimmering river
Keep undulating in my heart.
Xu spent a year studying at King’s College, where he was entranced by the work of Keats and Shelley, before returning to China to lead its modern poetry movement. Renowned for his love affairs, Xu died at the age of just 34 in a plane crash and the willow is now considered by his fans to be a shrine to lost youth. A memorial stone can be found beside the tree – an essential spot for Chinese tourists to grab a snap.
Germany’s answer to Bicester Village is Outletcity in Metzingen, the town in Baden-Württemberg, close to Stuttgart, where Hugo Boss was founded. It has little to lure anyone beyond scores of factory outlets. Hugo Boss was the first, but Prada, Nike, Burberry, Armani and Gucci, to name a few, have since followed suit. As the Economist points out, there’s an irony to the fact that many items bear “Made in China” labels, but high taxes and duties mean prices are around 40 per cent lower than those found in Beijing.
The former West German capital, rarely visited by Britons, is another popular port of call. Chinese love classical music – particularly Beethoven – making his birthplace an obvious highlight of any trip to Europe. The city’s tourist board offers maps in three foreign languages: English, Chinese and Japanese.
Both British and Chinese travellers flock to Venice, Rome and Florence – but Verona typically appears higher on the wishlists of China’s tourists. That’s because of the country’s collective adoration of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The play is popular on UK shores, of course, but the love is doubled in China as it was among the first of the Bard’s works to be translated into Mandarin, while its plot bears a striking resemblance to a famous Chinese folk tale, The Butterfly Lovers. Expect to see queues at the popular, though not necessarily authentic, House of Juliet on Via Cappello (a statue of the character stands beneath her balcony).