Chinese tourists play in front of Notre-Dame de Paris. Data suggest a record number of them chose to travel abroad during this year's Spring Festival. (Photo: China Daily)
By Fu Jing, Zhang Chunyan and Li Xiang
BEIJING, Feb. 7 (Xinhuanet) -- On Tuesday, Wu Chong returned from an eight-day trip to Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. She said she found few Chinese travelers in the museums and historic sites of Scandinavia, but saw several groups of them in Prague.
So, when she boarded a flight from Paris to Shanghai and discovered that most of the other passengers were Chinese, she wondered where they had all come from.
"The flight was almost exclusively Chinese people, who were all busy putting their bags of new clothes and other items into the overhead bins," Wu said.
A record 4.5 million Chinese people are estimated to have traveled overseas during Spring Festival, a rise of 12.5 percent from a year ago, according to the China Tourism Administration.
While Europe was one of the most popular destinations, there are marked differences between countries and factors such as the convenience of the visa applications, the influence of popular culture and the special services provided for Chinese travelers.
According to Han Fang, an employee at Mandarin Voyages, a French travel agency that deals mainly with tourists from China, agencies are citing Paris as one of the busiest destinations.
"We have seen a rapidly increasing number of Chinese tourists in Europe this year. France and Italy are among the most popular destinations for them," she said.
The French government has pledged to fast-track the application process for Chinese tourists, which will allow them to obtain a visa in 48 hours. Han was optimistic that the move would attract more Chinese tourists to France and other European countries.
"We've also noticed that a growing number of Chinese tourists are not satisfied with simply taking photos in front of the landmarks and shopping for luxury goods. Many of them prefer in-depth travel packages because they want to spend several days in one place - Paris, for example - and they want to explore the city, visit the museums and gain greater knowledge about its history. Many of them have clear plans and targets of their own," she said.
Although she enjoyed her stay in Europe, Wu Chong had some complaints, mainly about the problems involved in obtaining visas. "The northern European countries, especially Finland, deal with visa applications in an unfriendly way, in my opinion," she said.
The itinerary must be planned beforehand and potential tourists have to buy their air tickets before submitting their visa applications. "It means that if I, as a single person, want to change my travel plans during my stay, it will not be possible," she said.
Moreover, the duration of the visa is exactly the same as the period indicated on the air ticket. "This allows little flexibility for travelers," Wu said.
For Han's agency, the most popular product during the Spring Festival was an intensive package, which took the visitors to five countries in four days - France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
"The price effect is still noticeable when it comes to outbound tourism from the Chinese market," she said.
Tian Dong, who is currently visiting France, said a simplified visa application process would make the country a more attractive destination, but she still has safety concerns because Chinese tourists have become targets for crime in France.
"We were excited to learn that it will be much easier for us to apply for a French visa. That will certainly make the country more attractive to us," she said.
"But safety is still a concern. I have to be always on alert when I travel in the country. It would be good if the local authorities could do more to address the safety issue," she said.
The French tourist industry has been attempting to capitalize on the long diplomatic relationship between China and France, and as part of the Spring Festival celebrations, many tourist hotspots organized special events such as traditional dragon and lion dances.