Scandinavia is currently experiencing a massive growth in Asian tourists. A fruitful collaboration between DFDS and a number of Scandinavian tour operators have helped open the gates to the rapidly growing market. We hopped on a cruise with Pearl Seaways from Copenhagen to Oslo to meet these Asian visitors.
The fresh sea air nips at the cheeks as Pearl Seaways glides calmly through the fjord. It is still dark, but beyond the rocks can be glimpsed the early rays of the dawn, heralding the arrival of a new day. A Chinese family of four has risen early to brave the morning cold and take in the breathtaking sunrise from the ship’s port side. They have been looking forward to this particular approach, and their giant cameras snap incessantly as the landscapes go by.
This Chinese family is only one among thousands of Asian families, groups and individuals for whom Scandinavia has become an increasingly popular destination in recent years. They come to experience our beautiful nature (particularly the Norwegian fjords), shop for unique designer products and explore our culturally rich capitals, said Flemming Bruhn, Director of VisitDenmark.
According to VisitDenmark, Asian nationals accounted for 600,000 overnight stays in Denmark in 2016, twice as many as in 2010. Chinese tourists in particular account for a large number of these overnight stays, and they are an interesting customer segment for a company with a product such as the one DFDS offers.
“The Chinese are often not as experienced travellers as the Japanese are, so they want to see the most classic attractions Copenhagen has to offer, such as The Little Mermaid, Nyhavn and Amalienborg, to name a few. Most Chinese tourists visit Scandinavia in tour groups that take them on a round-trip through Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
This means DFDS has a very attractive product to offer, because the voyage is an easy and natural way of travelling between Denmark and Norway. At the same time, it is also a great product because it appeals both to experienced travellers and the tour groups," said Bruhn.
Targeted efforts bore fruit
The fact that the Copenhagen-Oslo cruise is popular among Asian tourists has become increasingly obvious to DFDS, which has been experiencing a large growth in this customer segment in recent years. From 2015 to 2016, the company experienced a 46% growth in tour groups from Thailand and 33% growth in tour groups from South Korea.
The overall growth in group sales amounted to 7% between 2015 and 2016, while the sale of individual online reservations has grown by an impressive 51% over just three years. This is the result of considerable efforts over a long period to promote tourism to Scandinavia in the Asian markets, which has now borne fruit, according to Hancy Anna Djurhûûs, Head of International Market at DFDS in Copenhagen.
“We see this as a collaborative effort with other Nordic actors and competitors, where in workshops in Asia we have been ‘selling’ the Nordic countries as a single destination and together created a solid and common Nordic brand, which has increased group tour sales. Online, we have been good at capturing the younger demographic - who typically book the trips themselves - by being active on social media, which is where you find them. We are growing online day by day, and we can already see now that the goal we set for 2017 has been reached,” Djurhûûs noted enthusiastically. She sees a large untapped potential in Asia and a journey that has only just begun.
On Pearl Seaways, it is now time to head to the lavish evening buffet at the ship’s restaurant, Seven Seas. A group of travellers from Hong Kong are among the first to enter the buffet area, diligently taking pictures of the varied and colourful selection of food with their phones and cameras. However, the focus quickly shifts to the large seafood buffet, where a little queue of tourists from Hong Kong starts to form quickly. The freshly cooked mussels, shrimp and crayfish are stacked high on many of the plates they carry back to their table.
Nature, culture and lots of seafood
The queue at the seafood buffet is no coincidence. Travellers from Asian countries love Nordic fish and shellfish, and they expect to find them served at the ship’s evening buffet. It is an expectation DFDS has taken seriously, said Djurhûûs.
“We have invested in a comprehensive upgrade of the buffet, putting a particular effort into meeting and surpassing the Asian passengers’ high expectations for delicious Scandinavian seafood. We have also made an extra effort, via info leaflets and clear signage, to help them understand and respect Nordic buffet culture. We can already now see the results of this in the form of a reduction in food waste on board the ship.”
Their love for Scandinavian seafood is just one of the many things about the Nordic countries that attracted Ivan Tang and his wife to the region. They are from Hong Kong and part of a larger group travelling around Scandinavia. This is their first voyage on the Oslo cruise, but four years ago they visited Scandinavia on their own, where they among other things travelled to the majestic Norwegian fjords around Bergen.
“We have returned to experience the beautiful scenery up here, which is very different from what we have at home. Being a history teacher, I am also very keen on exploring and learning more about the rich history and culture that you find in the cities. There are so many beautiful castles, characteristic buildings and great museums, and on top of all that, we love the food. This time we have tried roast pork, herring and fish fillets with remoulade,” said Ivan Tang, who could easily imagine coming back for a third visit in a few years. Next time, however, he would like to plan the trip himself.
Joint strategy paying off
The rising number of Chinese tourists like Ivan Tang can be greatly felt in Norway, where they account for the highest number of overnight stays in the Nordic countries by far. The country’s success in attracting the Chinese tourists can be attributed partly to an early entrance in the market and partly to strong cooperation between Nordic tour operators, according to Per Holte, a special adviser for Innovation Norway, which works to raise the profile of Norway’s sights and attractions abroad.
“We started early, in 2004, when the Chinese travel restrictions were eased. It is still a very hungry market, and we have been good at marketing all the things that makes Norway unique to the Chinese. But nobody does anything on their own in China, so instead of competing, we have tried to develop a strong joint cooperation between the Nordic tour operators. Together, we have built a really strong relationship with the 40-50 Chinese travel agencies that account for close to 80% of the Chinese tourists who visit the Nordic countries.
Previously, Chinese tourists would often combine their trip to Scandinavia with Germany or France, for instance. Now, they are increasingly spending their entire holiday in the Nordic countries, which benefits us all,” said Per Holte.
And that is something they can attest to in Bergen as well. In the old World Heritage City and gateway to the Norwegian fjords, the tourism industry has experienced an incredible rise in the number of visitors from Asia, according to Director Ole Warberg of Visit Bergen. Once again, it is particularly the Chinese who stand out. The joint Nordic branding strategy has led to fantastic results, Ole Warberg said.
"Four years ago we had 4,000 Chinese tourists. In 2016 we had 40,000. It is our common strategy with DFDS, among others, to brand the Nordic countries as a single product that is paying off now. When people visit Scandinavia, they rarely visit just one country. They visit several. That is why cooperation is a good strategy and will definitely be strengthened in the coming years. Asia is still a developing market where people are slowly becoming more accustomed to travel, and we think there is still a lot of good business to pick up in this region, both in relation to groups and individual travellers.”
VisitDenmark has been experiencing a similar trend. Today, the distribution of Asian group travellers and individual travellers to Denmark is approximately 80% in groups and 20% who want to explore the countries on their own, according to Bruhn.
“Right now, many Asians still feel safer booking their holiday through travel agencies. But a new generation of travel-accustomed, independent Asian tourists is coming, and in the future we will see a huge growth in the number of individual travellers. We see this among the Japanese and Koreans, for example, who often go travelling on their own and have already moved on step further with their fascination of all things Scandinavian. They are more interested in Danish design, lifestyle shopping in Illum and excursions to Louisiana rather than visiting The Little Mermaid and Amalienborg.”
One member of this new generation of young, independent travellers could be found on the cruise: Elan Xiong, who comes from Jiangsu, a province north of Shanghai. She is studying in Switzerland and is on a week-long holiday to Copenhagen and Oslo with her two friends.
"So far the trip has clearly surpassed my expectations. It is easy getting here, and people are so friendly and welcoming. We have been really impressed by the beautiful houses in Nyhavn and especially the simple and elegant décor we have seen in many places in Copenhagen. All the restaurants have had really enticing menus and looked trendy, and you can tell that they really attach importance to detail. Now, we’re looking forward to experiencing Oslo and seeing some of the famed Norwegian nature.”
The time is 9:45am and Pearl Seaways has docked in port. The passengers are disembarking and leaving the arrivals hall, where they are greeted by Oslo’s frosty winter weather and a slowly dissipating fog. The Asian tourists eagerly begin photographing the surroundings and trees, which are covered in a fine layer of hoarfrost. Elan Xiong and her friends waste no time heading into the city, while Ivan Tang and his wife board the waiting tourist coach, which will take them further into their Scandinavian adventure. They wave. Their enthusiasm and excited smiles make Oslo’s frosty weather feel a few degrees warmer.
Photo credit: Linda Johanson