Saturday 23 September 2017

Time to cash in on Beijing boomers

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26: Shoppers look through the window at Chanel handbags as they line up for the opening of Selfridges department store on December 26, 2010 in London, England. Thousands of shoppers seeking a Boxing Day sale bargain are filling Oxford Street and Regent's Street. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26: Shoppers look through the window at Chanel handbags as they line up for the opening of Selfridges department store on December 26, 2010 in London, England. Thousands of shoppers seeking a Boxing Day sale bargain are filling Oxford Street and Regent's Street. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Gemma O'Doherty

If you've visited London, Paris or Rome recently, you might have noticed a new breed of visitor. The streets are heaving with Chinese tourists laden down with designer shopping bags.

Look out for them the next time you're in Heathrow. The queue for the tax-refund office takes about three hours to get through and you can be sure most of the customers are heading for Beijing or Shanghai.

Their newfound prosperity and a lust to see the world has meant the Chinese are travelling like never before and with them comes massive spending power.

Every year when their New Year comes around, the world's largest human migration takes place, but last week's celebrations was like nothing before, with 60pc more people leaving China for the holiday than in 2011.

Last year, more than 65 million Chinese took a vacation abroad, compared with only 12 million a decade ago.

Nearly all of them belong to the country's burgeoning middle class who can't get enough of genuine branded goods, unlike the counterfeit fakes that flood their home market.

On the Chinese mainland alone, there are now about 1m millionaires, with an average age of 39.

Repressed by Communism for so long, they revel in being able to show off their new wealth and bring gifts home for family and friends.

For many, shopping is their primary reason for travelling abroad because they can buy luxury goods for up to 30pc less than they would pay at home, due to heavy local taxes on designer goods.

A few weeks ago, many of the crowds who stormed the Selfridges sales in the British capital were not young Londoners but Chinese tourists desperate to pick up the latest Louis Vuitton bag or Hermès scarf as if their lives depended on it.

British figures show that their average spend in a single shop is €1,200 -- 10 times that of European tourists and far more than other big spenders such as the Arabs and Russians.

Determined to maximise the power of the 'Peking pound', British retailers such as Harrods and Selfridges now employ Mandarin-speaking staff and have installed pay terminals for Chinese credit cards.

In Wales, a developer is creating a €65m luxury holiday village specifically for tourists from the People's Republic. The Carmarthenshire project aims to attract more than 20,000 Chinese a year.

Outlet malls such as Bicester Village in Oxfordshire are also chasing the dragon for all it's worth, welcoming about 4,500 coach-loads of Chinese shoppers a year.

That's more than half of the number who visited Ireland last year, yet their presence in this country has the ability to transform the economy.

The arrival of Etihad and Emirates Airways has made Ireland more accessible to the Chinese, along with the recent easing of visa restrictions, but we still have a long way to go.

Top of the agenda should be a direct flight between Dublin and Beijing, and the widespread availability of Mandarin in schools.

And while we'll never be able to compete with the Milans and Bond Streets of this world when it comes to bling, a few more high-end stores beyond Brown Thomas wouldn't go amiss.

Open them and they will come. And we might just get those cash registers ringing again.

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