Is Budapest the new Paris for Chinese travellers?
The travel bug has bitten China. With a rapidly increasing influx of visitors from Beijing, Shanghai and other major hubs, Europe is getting ready to welcome Chinese holidaymakers with tailor-made services. While their top ten countries of choice remains UK, France, Italy and Switzerland, the appeal of Budapest as an idiosyncratic destination to discover is on the rise. Rejuvenating baths, golden wines and century-old cafés have put Hungary’s capital on the map of a globally mobile Asian crowd, helping Budapest catch up with capitals such as London and Paris, two of the most important European metropolises for tourists from China.
The huge potential of Asia within the global travel market is demonstrated by high-profile activities such as EU-China Tourism Year, a major event to promote Europe’s lesser-known destinations and create incentives with easier visa facilitation and better connectivity by air between the two continents. Thanks to direct flights between Beijing and Budapest, Chinese visits to Hungary’s capital is also on the rise, as announced this week at a conference organized in cooperation with the Hungarian Tourism Agency to introduce Ctrip Customized Travel, a leading provider of visitor services, part of the Chinese Ctrip group.
“Budapest has three major highlights that attract Chinese tourists, such as the city’s baths, coffeehouse culture and the unmatched Danube panorama, especially at night,” says Weibin Hao, President of the Hungarian Association of Chinese Tour Guides and a long-time resident in the Magyar metropolis. “During customized tours, I also often invite my group to sample Tokaji Aszú,” he adds, referring to Hungary’s divine wine that adds its own sweet charm to these local attractions.
And tailor-made travel packages are more and more in demand in the Chinese market. Though only some 10% of the population hold a passport, this low-level ratio is still the equivalent of a whopping 140 million people of the country. For them, according to Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Arlt, director at the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, travelling is a question of prestige: “This segment in China incorporates those who own big cars and expensive watches. They are also the ones who can afford to travel,” he says.
“If you have money, buying luxury goods is not considered a personal achievement, but learning how to cook Hungarian goulash is more of an accomplishment,” Arlt adds. “First-time visitors to Europe are more likely to opt for Western countries, which makes Budapest a special destination for Chinese travelers. Those who come here often look for niche products and services.”
While the Eiffel Tower remains a perennial bucket-list sight, many Asian travellers have already seen it and snapped it. Discovering lesser-known localities is something that makes Chinese jet-setters stand out among their peers. “These new host countries are still to develop products specifically for Chinese holidaymakers, including promoting certain destinations with stories and historical references. This way, visiting the place feels like a privilege,” outlines Arlt.
And the Hungarian capital features plenty of heritage sights to explore. One such is the New York Café, the revived Habsburg-era coffeehouse that ranks high on most itineraries. “The Chinese tend to visit places by recommendation and the New York in Budapest is widely endorsed within online communities,” explains Weibin Hao.
This fact is further stressed by Arlt, who talks about the importance of Chinese social-media sites: “People in China first turn to these online platforms similar to Facebook and Instagram. Through these channels, users can read actual reviews and opinions as posted by fellow travellers”.
After deciding on a particular European city, many then combine their long-haul jaunt with visits to nearby destinations. “In Hungary, Chinese take day trips to the Danube Bend and places such as Tihany at Lake Balaton,” says Hao. “Looking at Central Europe, a Budapest tour is usually merged with a journey to the Czech Republic and Austria. Other countries of interest include Poland, Croatia and Slovenia.”
Covering so many places in one trip takes its toll on the duration of each city visit. On average, Chinese tourists spend some 12 days in Europe during one excursion. Unlike group tours with a tight schedule, individual travellers have more time to linger around sights and spend more time in cafés and restaurants.
Recognizing these new trends, Ctrip has been working towards offering more sophisticated travel experiences to customers. This new style in tourism makes people want to go off the beaten track, as Kane Xu, CEO of Ctrip Customized Travel, describes: “With tailor-made tours, there is no fixed itinerary. Experts help organizing the trip, bringing in professional guidance of those with considerable local knowledge”.
But it’s not only Ctrip. Other international organizations are also keen on analyzing tourism tendencies and adapt journeys to discerning Chinese travellers. As visa procedures become easier and the country’s high-speed development creates more disposable income for travel, the influx of Chinese globetrotters doesn’t seem to be diminishing.
“In the not-too-distant future, Hungary could become the start and end point of trips around the Balkans,” suggests Hao, hinting that Budapest is now one of Europe’s best-kept secrets for Chinese travellers. “This growth will simply accelerate in the years to come.”