SHANGHAI (AdAgeChina.com) -- Chinese airports provide an insight into a nation that is very much "on the move." Terminals are packed with passengers -- both business travelers and families on vacation -- jetting off all corners of the mainland and, increasingly, other parts of the world.
Just two decades ago, the movement of Chinese people was almost nonexistent. The location of citizens was determined and fixed by a rigidly enforced household registration system, based on worker units and the needs of production quotas. Knowledge of other locations was largely reliant on state-proselytized legend rather than actual experience.
In the last couple of years, however, local tourism has boomed alongside rising incomes, the emergence of a middle class and massive investment in transport infrastructure. Also, government-legislated holidays have given locals the needed downtime to go out and explore.
The recent boom in local tourism is built on a renewed interest in dynastic history in popular culture and a growing sense of nostalgia amongst middle-aged consumers, who grew up before China's economic reforms were implemented.
High on the mass tourist wish lists are places of historical interest and famed mountains. Hordes of track-suited tour groups descend on these destinations desperate to get their "I've been there" photo and a matching souvenir to show friends and family back home.
But the trend works both ways -- the growth of domestic tourism has created a newfound resurgence in local culture and China's history. Provincial governments, in tandem with airports and domestic airlines, are now actively promoting their own destinations through publications and promotional films. Shandong province, for example, has branded itself as a "Confucian heartland" where tourists can capture the essence of Chinese culture.
In a more sophisticated campaign, Wuzhen, a famous river town near Shanghai, has produced a TV and print campaign featuring Liu Ruoying, a popular Taiwanese actress and singer. The ads tempt tourists with a story of childhood nostalgia, suggesting visitors rediscover the simplicity of life. Other instances of location branding include leveraging unique food cultures and artistic traditions.
Traveling has also captured the imagination of Chinese in their 20s and 30s. Images and e-journals of travels to China's outer regions such as Yunnan and Tibet are popular on blogs and bulletin boards. Eager to avoid the constrictions of tour groups, they opt for personal vehicles, especially four-wheel drive cars, or independent travel. To support the increasing intrepidness of China's new travelers, "do-it yourself" travel guides and magazines have become popular at bookstores.
Noticing the increased penchant for travel experiences, a relaxation of visa restrictions for outbound tourism, and the financial means to afford overseas travel, foreign travel brands are responding with aids for prospective overseas travelers. Since last year, Lonely Planet has produced several Chinese-language guides. The latest books are about Turkey and West Australia.
With high-spending Chinese tourists in mind, national tourism boards and carriers have started producing advertising specifically for the Chinese market, rather than translated global campaigns.
But the advertising often struggles to balance the depiction of familiar cultural stereotypes with expressions of uniqueness. Presenting an "overseas experience" while differentiating destination in the minds of Chinese consumers, who often conflate nations into generic categories such as "western" or "Asian," is a tough challenge.
Just like ads in China for soft drinks, hamburgers and lipstick, using celebrities has become a popular approach for tourism marketers. The "Uniquely Singapore" campaign, for example, uses young Mando-pop idol J.J. Lin to create a visible and recognizable personality to Chinese consumers.
In another celebrity-based campaign, Jacky Chan is deployed to project the energy, internationalism, and most importantly, the "shopability" of Hong Kong.
Further afield, national brands have invited Chinese celebrities to make promotional visits. Recently, Air New Zealand hosted a number of local actors and recording artists such as Vicki Zhao, a Chinese film actress and pop singer. She and several friends, fellow artists, created blogs on Air New Zealand's Chinese web site documenting their experiences.
In an earlier move, Sri Lankan Airlines invited celebrity director and super-blogger Xu Jinglei to that country to produce a photo book introducing Chinese readers to her travels.
National travel brands have also found willing allies and support from consumer brands with a strong cultural image. Diageo, which markets whiskey brands as well as Guinness, has promoted travel and interest in Scotland and Ireland through its web sites and promotional events.
Advertising for the Australian wine brand Jacob's Creek has provided locals with powerful imagery of the natural beauty of Australia -- waves, kangaroos and wine country -- ultimately enhancing the interest in the nation as a tourist destination.
The emergence of location branding at the domestic level is creating more sophisticated demand. The power to attract the morphing numbers of outbound Chinese tourists increasingly depends on locally-grounded communication that convinces Chinese consumers to visit their country on their own terms.
In June 2008, Jerry Clode joined Flamingo International as project director, Asia/Pacific, based in Singapore. Before that, he was a senior research consultant at Anovax Marketing and Research Consultants, based in Shanghai.
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