Where are Chinese tourists going to next? Pop culture may hold some clues, from blockbuster rom-com “Finding Mr. Right” to U.S. sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”
China is the source of most of the world’s tourists as well as its biggest-spending travelers. In 2012 alone, 83 million Chinese went abroad and spent a whopping $102 billion, according to the most recent figures from the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
Now more than ever, popular culture is driving their decision making. Below are a few examples of how TV shows and hit movies are influencing Chinese tourists’ travel choices.
Over the past two years, Seattle – that rainy city in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. – has seen a 90% rise in visitor numbers from China, local officials say.
The reason: the huge popularity of the Chinese romantic comedy “Finding Mr. Right,” in which a woman from mainland China travels to Seattle to give birth. Directed by Xue Xiaolu and starring Tang Wei, the film has grossed more than $85 million in China since its release last year. (The movie’s Chinese title translates literally to “Beijing meets Seattle.”)
The city has attracted so many Chinese tourists that CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, sent a journalist to cover the city’s New Year’s Eve celebrations and a series of stories about the Pacific Northwest region.
Los Angeles has long been a favorite destination for Chinese tourists visiting the U.S. but lately, they’ve been asking for detours to nearby Pasadena to pay homage to their favorite sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.” Fans are requesting visits to places including the campus of California Institute of Technology as well as to a particular Cheesecake Factory outlet, which both figure prominently in the CBS sitcom that Chinese fans stream online.
“I’ve heard of tour guides being demanded by tourists that they go to those places,” said Sage Brennan, a Los Angeles-based retail consultant at China Luxury Advisors.
“The show has really taken off with the Chinese, and it has all these crazy repercussions. Brands can capitalize on this,” he added.
Officials said 708,000 travellers from mainland China visited the state in 2012, up from 517,000 the year before.
In the first 11 months of 2013, more than 4 million Chinese tourists visited South Korea, a 53% spike from the previous year due to the country easing visa restrictions to allow for freer travel from China.
But Wolfgang Arlt, of Germany’s China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, says the popularity of Korean television series and movies have also influenced travelers. Popular series in China include “The Heirs,” which featured South Korean heartthrob Lee Minho and last year became a huge hit on Youku, the Chinese equivalent of YouTube.
Thailand became a major destination for the Chinese in 2013, thanks in large part to the 2012 box-office hit “Lost in Thailand,” a buddy-comedy that smashed box office records. The tiny island country of Mauritius hopes it can similar buzz when the movie “Five Minutes to Tomorrow” is released later this year. A China-Japan co-production, the movie is about identical twin sisters who fall in love with the same man. In the first 10 months of 2013, more than 34,000 Chinese visited the country, an increase of 99% from the previous year. Mauritian tourist authorities hope the movie can spur 100,000 Chinese visitors “in the foreseeable future.”
EUROPE AND THE U.S.
The U.S., U.K., France and Germany remain the most frequented destinations for Chinese who travel to the West, but the sights they flock to within those countries often are unique to Chinese culture. For instance, Karl Marx’s birthplace in Trier, Germany, has long been a pilgrimage spot, while a willow tree in Cambridge, England, is a must-visit for bus tourists because of a well-known poem by Xu Zhimo, who studied at the city’s famed university in the 1920s.
“It’s like a parallel universe,” said Mr. Brennan in Los Angeles. “Pop culture comes up again and again when we do our research. But the Chinese interpretation is always different.”