“We don’t want to see Chinese travelers just visiting Edinburgh,” said Hazel Sellar-Johnston, the Market Manager of China and East Asia for Scotland’s national destination marketing agency, VisitScotland. “There’s so much more on offer, and we want to see them staying longer and visiting more regions.” Believe it or not, the home country of Nessie saw a big jump in tourism from Chinese travelers last year, but that’s actually a trend that organizations like TravelScotland have worked hard to build for nearly a decade. Now they’re hoping to open up attractions across the country to this booming travel market so that Chinese tourists can fully experience the mystery and magic of Scotland.
VisitScotland rightly identified China as a priority market for inbound tourism in 2018, one that became even more crucial after Hainan Airlines launched its first direct flights between Edinburgh and Beijing last June. The agency made a move to increase its presence on Chinese social media platforms (opening an official WeChat account alongside existing Weibo and Youku accounts) before finally launching a new WeChat mini-program during the Lunar New Year—a platform aimed at engaging young, affluent Chinese visitors.
Sellar-Johnston revealed that VisitScotland is primarily targeting 24-44-year-old free independent travelers (FITs) who are enthusiastic about the kind of “soft active” experiences Scotland has in abundance. “Not so much high-octane things like skydiving and bungee jumping, but a lot of immersive experiences like hiking, Land Rover experiences, wildlife, whale watching, traditional music festivals, and a lot of food and drink as well,” she said. The theory is that highlighting outdoor activities and nature could distinguish Scotland as a healthy tourist destination that’s free of the pollution and traffic problems often associated with large Chinese cities.
And the new mini-program will make it easier to find these experiences, as it’s specifically designed to enhance in-country experiences for Chinese visitors by enticing them to explore more areas of this lush, scenic country. Chinese visitors can use the platform to scroll around a map of Scotland and learn about pinned locations in three separate categories: places of interest, shopping, and dining. To further draw attention to the breadth of attractions across the country, the mini-program breaks the country down into four main regions: Aberdeen, Dundee, and the eastern shore; Glasgow and the southwest; Edinburgh, the Lothians, Fife, and the Borders; and the north, which includes the Scottish highlands.
But affluent Chinese travelers won’t only want to take in the scenery—they’ll also want to buy souvenirs, traditional meals, and other items during their stay. That’s why VisitScotland has also started working with Scottish businesses—like select shops and restaurants—with the idea of eventually featuring them on the mini-program. According to Sellar-Johnston, the platform currently lists about 200 tourist spots across Scotland, but so far those are mostly cultural attractions, scenic areas, or general places of interest. Before these listings are added, though, businesses and organizations desirous of Chinese customers have to show that they’re ready to accommodate these visitors.
“There are eligibility criteria for businesses to be listed within there,” Sellar-Johnston said. “Things that stand out would be if they have a Mandarin speaker or guide on staff, if they have their marketing materials or information translated into Chinese, or whether they can work with Chinese payment systems like WeChat Pay or Alipay.” Like most destinations, Scottish businesses are slowly coming around to integrating Chinese mobile payment solutions. “It’s slow, but it is increasing, especially in areas like Edinburgh, where the local destination management organization are really proactive with the China market,” Sellar-Johnston added.
But in its quest to create the most effective China-facing content possible, VisitScotland has even more planned for the Chinese travel market. “We’re still learning as we go along,” Sellar-Johnston said. “We’re experimenting with content, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and trying to optimize it.” Other initiatives include a forthcoming video mini-series which will feature Chinese people talking about their experiences living in Scotland, and revising China-facing pages on the VisitScotland website. “I think it’s easy for us in Scotland to think that we are a very well-known destination,” Sellar-Johnston said, but she also confessed that “in a market like China that’s a bit less mature, Scotland is considered a hidden gem. It’s a bit more exotic.” Yet that reputation could turn out to be an advantage for Scotland.