Does the motherland know? Despite diplomatic spat, more Chinese travelers are choosing Sweden
“[Sweden is] such a dangerous place. Why does our government not send out a notice to Chinese people not to travel there any more?” an overwrought Sina Weibo user wondered earlier this year.
It was September, at the height of a diplomatic spat that began with the alleged mistreatment of a Chinese tourist family by Swedish hostel staff, then escalated after SVT satirical show Svenska Nyheter (Swedish News) poked fun at the incident with some crassly racist remarks, aimed at Chinese tourists, that recommended “if you see someone who’s out walking a dog, it’s not because they just bought lunch.”
Although Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said the program was a “gross insult to, and vicious attack, on China and the Chinese people,” mainland travelers during October’s National Day “Golden Week” seemed to have taken little notice.
Spending on Alipay during the holiday increased by 760 percent over 2017, and Lotta Andersson, marketing executive of Visit Stockholm, said that the amount of overnight stays by Chinese tourists in the Swedish capital increased by 23 percent over the year 2017.
“The effects [of the spat]…will blow over soon,” Joe Gong, a Shanghai-based marketing manager and expert on Swedish business, predicted to TWOC. Sinologists have dismissed the episode as “hyperbole and distraction,” reminiscent of the Manchu strategy of pengci—“broken porcelain,” and Sweden is already back in Beijing’s good graces with a savvy combination of policy, financial investment, and soft power.
Although Sweden was the first Western country to form diplomatic relations with the PRC, the country is now mainly associated with its consumer goods. Swedish furniture chain Ikea has been charming Chinese shoppers with minimalist designs and 2-yuan hot dogs for two decades; one store in Beijing had to implement a “no-nap policy“, banning visitors from sleeping on the furniture displays. Hunger for the so-called “Scandinavian design” (北欧风) kicked up a notch with the recent openings of Nome in China, described as “if [bargain retail chain] Miniso and Ikea had a lovechild.”
Swedish brands were also central to Stockholm’s 7.2 million SEK (circa 800.000 USD) initiative to make the city more welcoming to the growing tourist population. In 2017, Mood, a popular department store in Stockholm, started a WeChat account, offering Alipay in one of their locations. Sneaker brand Eytys also started accepting Alipay this year. According to Gong, these initiatives “simplify the purchasing process for the Chinese so that they buy more stuff, and also easily push promotions and campaigns digitally”.
Why is Sweden targeting Chinese tourists in particular? Gong believes “economic reasons” and the “high spending power” of Chinese tourists, who spent over 1.8 trillion RMB when traveling abroad in 2016. Current estimates suggest that only around 120 million (8.7 percent) of Chinese hold a passport, set to double by 2020—a huge untapped source for overseas spending.
As many abandon tour groups for personal itineraries, Sweden hopes to position itself as an alternative to the “beaten path” of the traditional Euro-trip itinerary. Chinese tourism in Scandinavia is on the rise, and Visit Stockholm’s Andersson claims the “Scandinavian lifestyle, nature, cultural offerings and shopping” are chiefly responsible: Sweden has 15 UNESCO World Heritage sites, the highest among Scandinavian countries and 19th in the world.
Zhao Huiqiong, a Guilin middle-school teacher who took a 16-day tour through Sweden, Denmark, and Finland in 2018, told TWOC that she has always wanted to experience the “natural scenery and local customs” of Northern Europe. “We liked Sweden the most, because Sweden made us feel the most relaxed, and the Swedish people were the friendliest towards us,” Zhao says, adding she “has no regrets” and wants to stay longer on her next visit.
While Sweden’s year-to-year gains sound impressive, Chinese tourism to Europe rose by 35 percent in the first quarter of 2018, and it is unclear how much Sweden’s share should be credited to favorable policies or branding. Moreover, according to a list compiled by the Telegraph, none of the Scandinavian or Nordic countries made it to China’s top 10 most-traveled countries worldwide, nor even the emerging destinations.
“Visit Sweden needs to be more active,” Gong recommends, “and they must increase their presence on WeChat and Weibo, user-generated content, and quick and convenient payment through WeChat and Alipay.”