The Chinese Dragon roars in the UK

There remains a major spotlight on attracting the lucrative China outbound market into Europe and airports across the Continent are particularly keen to secure new direct routes into the country to take advantage of a growing propensity for international travel.

Already this year Routes Asia yielded positive discussions between China's airlines and some European airports and Routes Europe in Kraków, Poland will likely see further discussions taking place between air service development professionals across Europe and representatives of airlines such as China Southern Airlines.

World Routes returns to China for the second time this year and will be hosted in Chengdu in September 2016, while it was revealed this week that after taking place in Barcelona, Spain, the event will return to China in 2018, hosted by the country's third largest city, Guangzhou.

In recent years China has overtaken both USA and Germany to become the largest outbound market in the world with Chinese travellers now the top source of tourism cash, according to the UNWTO. In 2012 their annual spend was estimated at $102 billion, growing to a market of 97 million and spend of $124 billion in 2013 and 110 million and $165 billion in 2014.

Looking at the UK market alone, this year will see the introduction of direct flights to three new Chinese cities - Chongqing, Hangzhou and Tianjin - adding to the existing non-stop flights on offer to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu.

Latest figures from VisitBritain state that tourist numbers to the UK from China were up 37 percent in the first nine months of 2015 as more than 200,000 Chinese holidaymakers visited the UK in the nine month period.

VisitBritain, which is hoping to double spending from Chinese visitors to £1 billion by 2020, said they were already among the highest spenders – ringing up £2,688 a head. Chinese visitors already account for almost a quarter of tourist spending in the UK.

Higher incomes have allowed millions of Chinese to start taking holidays outside their country. The World Tourism Organisation estimates 100 million Chinese will leave their country on holiday this year. While Asian countries make up the top five destinations, France, Italy Switzerland and Germany are also in the top 10.

The UK has proved less popular, as it is outside the EU’s Schengen single-visa bloc. In a bid to boost visitor numbers, the UK introduced a new two-year visitor visa for Chinese nationals last year. The new visa costs £85, the same as the previous six-month visa, and enables holders to make multiple trips to the UK.

The growth in China - UK routes this year will also see Capital Airlines, Hainan Airlines and Tianjin Airlines debut new routes alongside those already offers by China's big three Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines and British Airways.

The most notable is a first scheduled link into a regional UK city from China. Hainan Airlines will debut a four times weekly link between Beijing and Manchester from June 10, 2016 and we can reveal that it is set to expand to a more frequent operation from the start of next year to support strong demand.

The airline has only partly released forward bookings for beyond January 1, 2017 on the GDS amid growing speculation that it is to debut a daily service from next year. The route is being flown using an Airbus A330-200.

The Manchester-Beijing route is reported to be worth at least £250 million in economic benefits to the UK over the next decade, with two-thirds being felt directly in the Northern economy in terms of increased jobs, economic activity and tourism. By providing a non-stop service, the new route will also generate journey time savings worth £5 million every year for business passengers and avoid the inconvenience of changing planes at another airport.

Manchester is also expected to welcome a new direct link Into Shanghai from Air China, although some final licensing issues and suitable slot acquisition at Pudong International Airport are understood to have delayed its launch until October 2016 at the earliest. It is also understood that Hainan Airlines will also introduce a twice weekly link to Manchester from the city of Xi'an in summer 2017.

The new scheduled flights from Hainan Airlines follows a successful charter programme into Birmingham from Beijing last year on behalf of Chinese tour operator Caissa. This will picked up by its sister carrier Capital Airlines this year and expanded to also include the first flights between the UK and Hangzhou.

Hangzhou is the capital and largest city of Zhejiang Province in Eastern China. It sits at the head of Hangzhou Bay, which separates Shanghai and Ningbo. Hangzhou grew to prominence as the southern terminus of the Grand Canal and has been one of the most renowned and prosperous cities in China for much of the last millennium, due in part to its beautiful natural scenery.

The city’s Xiaoshan International Airport can be an alternative gateway into the Greater Shanghai market thanks to a high-speed rail link that connects the two cities, which are just 135km apart, in as little as 45 minutes, but also holds its own local traffic.

Capital Airlines will actually be the third Chinese carrier to serve Birmingham in three years, with China Southern Airlines initially introducing services in 2015. This will be the first year that these will be flown on a scheduled charter basis with seat-only sales available on the weekly flights to both Beijing and Hangzhou which will be flown using a two-class A330 configured with 211 seats – 33 in Business Class and 178 in Economy.

“We have reached one of our goals – to offer direct scheduled services to China. We have made the investment, developed the market and this is testament that our region has enormous demand for direct flights to China,” said Paul Kehoe, chief executive officer, Birmingham Airport.

“Last year around 150,000 people flew between our region and China, with passengers preferring to travel from their local airport. Beijing Capital Airlines and Caissa have recognised this demand, paving the way for a scheduled service to both Beijing and Shanghai,” he added.

In the last week Gatwick Airport has also confirmed the arrival of Tianjin Airlines and the first non-stop link between the UK and Chongqing and direct onward offering to and from Tianjin. The flights will operate on a twice weekly basis from June 25, 2016.

The young carrier is little known outside of its home market and has just seven years of operation under its current brand. Like Capital Airlines it is also subsidiary of the HNA Group. It was established in 2004 to bring together the regional activities of Hainan Airlines and the smaller China Xinhua Airlines, Chang An Airlines and Shanxi Airlines and received its operating certificate from CAAC in 2007. It initially launched as Grand China Express Air, at the time the largest regional carrier in China, but was rebranded as Tianjin Airlines in June 2009.

Chongqing has invested heavily in infrastructure and is very well connected to the rest of China with, for example, the nearby Three Gorges Dam - the world's largest - allowing oceangoing ships to reach Chongqing's Yangtze River port. These infrastructure improvements have led to the arrival of numerous foreign direct investors in industries including car manufacturing, finance and retailing.

Tianjin is located in northeast China and is the major gateway port serving the capital Beijing. It is also home to a Special Economic Zone – where key experimental economic reforms are taking place - and has become a hub of advanced industry and financial activity with around 285 Fortune 500 companies now located there.

“By flying into two of China’s most important economic centres, Gatwick is providing vital direct connections for UK business people into some of the most exciting growth markets on the planet,” said Guy Stephenson, chief commercial officer, Gatwick Airport.

“Tourists from both the UK and China will also benefit, as will non-exporting businesses located in the UK as Chinese visitors are some of the highest spenders. The number of tourists from China also grew almost 40% last year alone and these numbers are only going to rise,” he added.

Richard Maslen

Richard Maslen has travelled across the globe to report on developments in the aviation sector as airlines and airports have continued to evolve and…