Increasing number of Chinese tourists prefer handy internet-based services
A Chinese traveler opens up WeChat to book a cab from the airport to the city center. On the way, he uses the app to buy theater tickets, and make a lunch reservation at a local restaurant, which he settles later with WeChat pay.
Such a scenario will be familiar to any Chinese traveler taking a domestic holiday, but it can also describe what is now available in Helsinki, Finland, following the launch of a collaboration between the city's tourism authority and WeChat parent company Tencent.
Currently in its beta-version, WeChat's My Helsinki mini program aims to replicate the convenience that the "super app" provides users in China. And the program is one of the major "smart tourism" initiatives showcased at the World Travel Market trade fair in London this week.
"The My Helsinki mini program offers so much in one app- online tax refund services, translation service, WeChat pay," said Jorvik Zhang, who is head of business development for Northern Europe at Tencent Cloud. "Right now, WeChat is most popular in China. I believe, once WeChat becomes popular outside of China, WeChat will take programs to more cities outside of China."
For Helsinki, the partnership could go some way to solving a core issue in the city's inbound travel market－Chinese tourists arrive by the thousands, but the majority never leave the airport because most are in transit on the way to other destinations.
"We started talks with Tencent a few years ago. At that time, 80 percent of Chinese people flying to Helsinki airport didn't stop in the city at all," said Tia Hallanoro, who is director of digital development at Helsinki Marketing.
"They stayed within the airport even for long layovers. The city center is half an hour away, it's a compact city, it's easy to get around. We wanted them to experience the whole city, the cultural scene, the thriving food culture, the amazing museums. We wanted to get them out from the airport to experience the whole place."
Hallanaro says data due in December will reveal whether the program has worked. Such initiatives will make destination cities more competitive when it comes to luring Chinese travelers, who make up the largest outbound tourism market in the world.
"The Chinese customer is really keen on smart initiatives－when they go to a destination, they look for these things," said Esencan Terzibasoglu, a special advisor for the World Tourism Cities Federation, or WTCF.
Terzibasoglu said this is partly because Chinese people are familiar with "smart tourism" initiatives that are now ubiquitous in their own country.
In its Global Report on Smart Tourism, released at this week's WTM London trade fair, the WTCF highlighted the efforts of four Chinese cities that have used technology to enhance visitor experiences.
"Chengdu in China is doing very well, because they have become a smart city and they want to use this smart city concept as their brand to attract customers," Terzibasoglu said. "This has helped to capture more visitors, the initiatives that Chengdu has are amazing."
Terzibasoglu said that Chengdu is especially strong in smart tools for visitors, including ultra-HD livestreaming, interactive virtual reality experiences, advanced booking systems, and digital tour guides.
Guiyang, China's "big data valley" in Guizhou province, has collaborated with online travel agency Ctrip.com on a smart tourism platform that uses big data to improve accommodation and transport in the city, and even analyses tourist preferences to identify demands in different customer groups.
In the report, Kunming in Yunnan province drew praise for its "Tour with just your mobile" initiative that integrates much of what the city has to offer on one app, while Beijing was noted for decreasing congestion at tourist attractions through its time-division appointment ticketing systems.