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The north of England has never been more popular with Chinese tourists. In 2015, there were 64,000 visits from China, up from 35,000 in 2014 — a record, according to national tourism agency VisitBritain. Direct flights to Beijing from Manchester begin this month, and Shanghai could follow, further boosting tourism.
Rising numbers of visitors — often to see relatives or to watch Premier League football — have increased their economic contribution. In 2015, Chinese tourists spent £83m in the north, up 17 per cent on the previous year, according to VisitBritain. The Marketing Manchester agency has developed a guide in Mandarin to tax-free shopping in the city, distributed in China as well as in Britain (the guide is also available in Cantonese and Arabic).
Luxury businesses in particular are benefiting from the influx of Chinese visitors: at Boodles, a family-owned jeweller that dates back to 1798, Chinese clients account for more than 10 per cent of turnover at its Manchester shop. The company has hosted several meals at Chinese restaurants for valued clients.
Michael Wainwright, managing director, says that the Liverpool-based business had always been popular with local Chinese. “Now we have their relatives from China and Hong Kong coming in. Students also bring their parents. Sunday afternoons are when we usually see them.
“They really like diamonds — they do not go so much for coloured stones. They also like Patek Philippe watches — they are the only third-party item we sell. It is hard to get them in China and they are a lot more expensive.”
Hancocks jewellers, also in Manchester’s prime King Street shopping district, occasionally opens specifically for wealthy Chinese customers in the evenings. Roy Lunt, the owner, says there has been a big increase in Chinese shoppers, who now account for a 10th of sales. One of his prize possessions is a sales slip for £220,000 for a single ruby that went to a Chinese customer.
“There is nothing of this quality outside London. We get a lot of referrals from jewellers there,” he says.
Word of mouth also works well. “We sold a sapphire ring worth £50,000. The lady took it back to Hong Kong and someone saw it and said how beautiful it was, then they came over to buy from me.”
Another attraction of Manchester is that prices there can be lower than in London because of the northern city’s lower rents and wages.
Manchester has more than 14,000 ethnic Chinese residents, according to the 2011 census, along with thousands more students at its universities. Nearby Liverpool has 8,000 Chinese residents, as well as 3,200 students, and is twinned with Shanghai, which modelled its waterfront on that of the British port.
Boodles’ shop at Harrods department store in London has a Chinese-speaking member of staff, and Manchester could be next, Mr Wainwright says.
The jeweller has no plans, however, for a store in China, after closing its Hong Kong branch. “It is a very difficult place to do business. We are very happy to sell to them here in the UK,” Mr Wainwright says.