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Helping the Chinese look beyond Big Ben

Chinese tourists enjoy a taste of London life at a pub belonging to Fuller's, one of the city's big brewers. (Courtesy of Beiwei 55)

LONDON   Asian destinations aren't the only ones rethinking their approach to Chinese tourism. In the U.K., a new breed of tour operator is offering the growing numbers of sophisticated visitors from the Middle Kingdom an experience going well beyond the traditional sights.

     Beiwei 55, or Latitude 55 in Chinese, was started 18 months ago and offers tours to small groups, guided by Mandarin-speaking native Britons. The name refers to the geographical midpoint of the U.K.

     Co-founder Jay Smith was leading tours for westerners to China when he discovered that many Chinese were dissatisfied with the tours on offer in Europe; they disliked large groups and highly regimented itineraries. "It wasn't something they were enjoying," he says.

     So Smith's company hopes to tempt his customers with the charms of the U.K. beyond central London and Bicester Village, a retail outlet center in Oxfordshire selling cut-price luxury goods that is wildly popular among Chinese tourists.

     Highlights include visits to the rolling Yorkshire Dales, to England's sparsely populated North East and walking tours around East London. Aimed at younger Chinese, the latter takes in the streets around Whitechapel, made famous as the hunting ground of 19th-century serial killer Jack the Ripper. Other suggestions include the bell foundry where Big Ben was cast and the chance to try Brick Lane's famous salt beef bagels.

     For an older generation of Chinese, the slower, more in-depth style of excursion can come as a shock, says Smith. To encourage participation on tours, "we actually give out sweets and chocolates to whoever answers questions," he says. "Once they notice that, they get more and more involved."

     Many of Beiwei 55's tours are booked by wealthy families or corporate groups, who are drawn by the smaller numbers. "Exclusivity is something that works well for us," says Smith.

     But he is also aware that for most Chinese, the U.K.'s most famous sites will continue to be the biggest draw. "For the immediate future it is still very much the big cities, the big sites, the Big Bens," he says, but adds hopefully: "[Chinese] love the Lake District. They'll go and have a look and take a photo, but hiking is perhaps a step too far for now," he says.

     Among the well-heeled Chinese visitors on tours organised by rival operator Uncover Britain, more than two-thirds are repeat visitors to the U.K. The company, also set up 18 months ago, offers personalized luxury tours to small groups.

     Many companies "understand luxury but they don't necessarily understand luxury in the context of the Chinese traveler," explains co-founder Chris Clarke. The "very wealthy in China are very used to being able to change plans at the last minute and not commit in advance," he says.

     All of Uncover Britain's tours include shopping, but with many of the big luxury brands now a common sight on China's streets, some of the status of these products has been lost, says Clarke. "It really isn't an indicator of individuality anymore. Actually it's some of the smaller, more anonymous brands that now provide that." 

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