Finnair hosted a dragon dance at Helsinki Airport to celebrate the opening of its route to Chongqing. Image via Finnair

APEX Insight: In 2015, Chinese tourists spent $215 billion during overseas travels – more than any other nationality, and a 53 percent rise from 2014. From personal shoppers in Helsinki to Asian dumplings in Addis Ababa, the rise of Chinese overseas travel is encouraging airports across the world to customize their services to cater to this fast-growing passenger demographic.

Bole of Dumplings

Peckish travelers passing through Addis Ababa Bole International Airport (ADD) may struggle to find food vendors serving Ethiopia’s national dish, Doro Wot, a seasoned slow-cooked aromatic chicken stew. But Asian dumplings? They’re on the menu at two of the airport’s cafes. Passengers will soon realize this is no mere culinary quirk: Indicators of Sino influence are all around.

Trilingual departure gate signs in English, Amharic and Mandarin adorn ADD’s terminal buildings, and passenger announcements reverberate from loudspeakers in all three languages. The airport also has a Chinese help desk, where personnel are on standby to assist Chinese travelers arriving and transiting through East Africa’s busiest air transport hub. Ethiopian Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, even employs Chinese cabin crew to operate the majority of its 28 weekly flights to and from Beijing, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Shanghai.

Vast sums of China-based investment into Africa are bringing a growing band of the nation’s laborers, businessmen and engineers through ADD. Ethiopia’s main airport has become the continent’s gateway to the Far East, and it’s no surprise that Ethiopian Airlines is building Africa’s largest Chinese restaurant in the capital of Addis Ababa.

Eur-Oh So Accommodating

China’s middle class is larger, richer and ever more mobile, and Africa’s regional hub isn’t the only airport that’s taking this into account. Thanks to rapid urbanization and rising disposable incomes, in 2015, Chinese tourists spent $215 billion during overseas travel – more than any other nationality, and a 53 percent rise from 2014. Major international airports are keenly aware of this and are going to extraordinary lengths to cater to their needs and wishes.

Helsinki Airport has positioned itself as Europe’s gateway to Asia. The airport’s operating company Finavia has installed signage in Mandarin and employs Chinese-speaking customer service personnel to assist travelers. In 2015, Chinese passenger volume exceeded the amount of Russian passengers for the first time, having grown by 50 percent from 2014 to 2015; they also happen to be the biggest spenders at Helsinki Airport.

Designer label-loving Chinese air travelers with growing incomes are now spending in excess of $3,800 per person each year on duty-free and destination-based products. Cosmetics, watches, jewelry and fashion, particularly European luxury brands, are among the most popular product groups for Chinese passengers, according to Elena Stenholm, Finavia’s Helsinki Airport commercial director.

Munich Airport is looking to capitalize on Chinese traveler’s liberal holiday spending habits. Through a partnership with German payments technology provider Wirecard and airport stores retailer Eurotrade, travelers from China are able to make purchases using the Alipay smartphone app.

Heathrow Goes Weibo

London’s Heathrow is also embracing China’s tech platforms. With access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube blocked on Chinese mainland, Heathrow has jumped on board the country’s biggest social media sites in an effort to engage the country’s travelers with real-time travel updates, promote UK tourism and boost revenues from duty-free retail.

In June this year, Europe’s busiest airport launched its presence on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform similar to Twitter with over 600 million users worldwide. “With inbound tourism from China continuing to rise, having a presence on Weibo is critical if we want to provide the best possible service to our passengers,” said Marc Ellam, Heathrow’s head of Passenger Communications.

“With inbound tourism from China continuing to rise, having a presence on Weibo is critical if we want to provide the best possible service to our passengers.” — Marc Ellam, Heathrow

Heathrow is also active on WeChat, a cross-platform instant messaging service with more than 438 million active users. Called Heathrow Personal Shopper, the WeChat channel complements the airport’s personal shopper service and is aimed at Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking passengers who have traveled through Heathrow, or who will be traveling in the near future. “We like to keep our followers up to date with the latest fashion trends, while also highlighting exclusive items for sale here at Heathrow,” says Belle Gao, a personal shopper and manager of Heathrow’s WeChat account.

Despite fears of an economic slowdown in China following a stock market crash in January of this year, Boeing estimates that China’s aircraft fleet will triple by 2034, with a need for 6,330 commercial passenger airplanes, worth a total of $950 billion. Goldman Sachs also doesn’t see the growth in outbound Chinese tourism ending anytime soon. The investment bank estimates that Chinese tourists will spend $450 billion on travel overseas in 2025. How far airports across the world will go to adapt their services for the growing Chinese travel market remains to be seen.