China is the largest outbound tourism market in the world, with international departures from the country growing rapidly.

Recognising the large opportunities that characterise the market, tourism players globally are deploying innovative strategies and channels in order to lure Chinese tourists and get their share of the pie.

In 2016, 130.1m Chinese citizens travelled abroad.

This figure is expected to grow exponentially according to GlobalData figures, with international departures from China forecast to reach 212.8m by 2021.

The growing number of Chinese entering the middle class — whose disposable income is rising and are therefore more able to afford foreign trips — coupled with the easing of visa restrictions around the world and more air connections are driving the outbound tourism boom.

Whereas most tourism players, and in particular tourism boards, sought to attract Chinese visitors through marketing campaigns and ads, lately, some cities around the world proceeded by forming a partnership with the most popular Chinese instant messaging platform, WeChat.

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WeChat, owned by tech giant Tencent, has almost one billion users as of 2017 and is embedded into the daily interactions and activities of Chinese people. Given its significant reach, the app is used by tourism players for advertising and for pushing out stories about destinations, hotels, flights and activities.

In November, Tencent introduced its CityExperience Mini Program. The program includes a series of new tools that allow tourism boards to build individual microsites within WeChat and acts as an interactive platform for better connecting with Chinese tourists when they visit their destination.

Helsinki, San Francisco, Washington DC, Dubai, London and Sydney have already embraced WeChat’s CityExperience Mini Program.

Such cities, taking advantage of the microsite capability, have designed interactive digital guides in Mandarin.

The guides include maps with marked points of interest, information about culture and history, as well as shops, restaurants and bars. Such information may also include opening times, address and contact details, helping tourists to better plan and organise their trip.

WeChat is also experimenting with augmented reality, data-sharing and panoramic maps, aiming to further boost its tourism product offering and create a better travel experience for its members.

The Mini Program’s capabilities are a great opportunity for tourism boards – and other players in the industry – to engage with Chinese travellers more effectively, by overcoming key marketing challenges.

In particular, tourism boards who try to promote their destination and services through apps often face issues with convincing customers to install apps, as well as a high cost of developing and promoting their own-branded apps, which could wipe out any projected return on investment.

Hence, the Mini Program is a promising alternative for tourism boards that can leverage WeChat’s large user base to effectively target Chinese tourists and provide them with a more tailored travel experience, as well as make them feel more welcomed by helping them to overcome potential language and cultural barriers.

The app also offers renewed potential for tourism boards of developing countries that cannot spend much on marketing – including developing their own apps – but highly depend on the industry as a source of income.

At the same time, through the launch of this program, WeChat is seen as facilitating the international travel experiences of its users, while generating substantial revenue; creating a win-win situation.

These new tools are being introduced at a critical point of time, as we are now witnessing the rise of the independent Chinese travelers who prefer to plan their trip themselves using online resources and travel without a tour group – pointing out the great potential that this app could have among independent travelers.

Given China’s status as the most valuable outbound tourism market, cities and countries around the world that seek to attract Chinese tourists are urged to diversify the channels through which they approach such visitors.

It is worth giving WeChat’s CityExperience a chance, as it presents a fresh and promising way to tap into 1bn potential travellers, while overcoming key marketing challenges such as initial investment cost, cultural and language barriers.