Helsinki’s Vantaa Airport and the East Asian Gambit

Three older Germans stood in front of me looking at the crowd with confusion in their faces. Their heads turn back in unison at the sign, and speak to each other, “Ja, Berlin… ja”, then they turned back to face the crowd and looked at each other in bewilderment, were these Chinese tourist really going to Berlin? They look back at their ticket and walked away.

I joined the queue as it came time to board, with Chinese tourist in front and behind me. My ears perked and couldn’t help it as I listened in to the camtonese conversations around me. Cantonese is a southern Chinese dialect and is spoken by the people of Guangdong one of the richest provinces in all of China, where the haves really do have money and the have nots really don’t (not unlike anywhere in the United States).

“Do you notice that the people working outside the plane are all so young?”

“Yes, back home its all older people. Might not actually be a bad thing to get younger people to do these jobs at home though…”

“Yes, but which young person would want to do it?”

“Wow these flight attendants are very pretty!”

“It’s the double eyelids I tell you, we Chinese don’t have them thats why we don’t look as good.”

“Actually after visiting these European countries, China really does have everything doesn’t it. Why do we still lack behind…” I got to my seat and out of hearing shot of the conversation, recalling only the words 思想, mentality, said in response. Travel (whether through reading, or flying or volunteering) opens our eyes to the world and prompts us to expand our intellectual framework and views on life.

Here I was waiting to board a plane from Helsinki to Berlin but it felt more like I was in Asia. It began even before boarding. The Helsinki airport was full of flights that had arrived from Asia, rather than Swedish or German the sign boards at the airport had Mandarin, Japanese, Korean followed by Cyrillic (probably Russian) translations.

The gates to many different European destinations were packed with East Asian people. These locations were not the typical ones you’s expect – London, Paris, Rome – these locations were more exotic (by East Asian standards at least) such as – Prague, Stockholm and Berlin, which made clear was that these tourists were not first time travelers, these were seasoned travelers going for a cultural experience rather than a purely commercial one I reckon.

The economic development of China is creating a burgeoning middle class from almost 800 million people lifted out of poverty in less than 3 decades (that’s 1.5 times the size of EU and 2.5 times the size of the US) there is so much pent up dynamism and energy to explore the world in the process spending money from all the growth. Last year 145 million return trips were made from Chinese tourist with a total global expenditure of some 261 billion USD in 2016 (in 2000, that number was 10 billion and it expected to cross 300 billion USD when the numbers for 2017 are tallied).

High profile stories of bad tourists have given Chinese travellers the stereotypical image of rowdy and insufferable visitors tolerated not for their presence but for their money. This in turn has created the impression to Chinese tourists that they are second class tourist. It seems a bit foolish though, to label a traveling population the size of the whole French and German nations put together as bad tourists. There are some tourists who are first time travelers, but there are increasingly many many more experienced, highly educated, highly cultured and extremely polite good travelers. It is notable that while the ugly Chinese tourist stories sprouted about three to four years ago, this has stopped being very much an issue (even on blogs and quora) in more recent times.

Because of the romance of Europe, less friendly attitude of the US administration and general lower safety levels in the US, European destinations have been huge beneficiaries of the travel bug that has bitten Chinese travelers. Beneficiaries that European countries have cashed in on, but because of outdated notions of people have done little to advance their national impressions on the Chinese travelers.

But there are only so many bags these tourists can buy without getting sick of shopping trips, purely for the sake of shopping. It used to be that Asian tourists would come in the bus loads be brought around a place fora few hours and then be shepherded like cattle back onto the bus to leave. It still happens, but there is an increasing amount of worldly and well-traveled tourists to cater to.

Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Tourism in the 21st century brings with it a unique challenge called over-tourism in places like Barcelona, Dubrovnik and Venice, where large tourist numbers (not solely from China but mainly from backpackers) has led to local businesses being displaced and the real cultural value being lost to mass tourism, representative shops replaced by poser cafes and main streets overrun with tacky souvenir shops. I am of the opinion that the larger move towards cultural experiences from a large swathe of global travelers and seeking out unique and authentic cultural experiences will have a beneficial effect on curbing the negatives of over-tourism.

These increasingly sophisticated East Asian travelers are increasingly turning to experiences rather than materials. While the earlier part of this post was basically speaking about China, it is into this milieu that Korean and Japanese tourist become a vital and enduring part, as worldly travelers who began doing so before the Chinese, the Koreans and Japanese already have a more sophisticated desire to travel and already a key part of the experience and cultural travel market rather than the pure consumerist travel market.

It is into this backdrop that Helsinki Vantaa Airport comes into the picture.

Helsinki is connected to so many places that are not on the typical East Asian tourist map (like Paris, London and Rome) and have links to many important cities with amazingly varied cultural experiences, cuisines and landscapes that these tourist look for.

There is therefore a need for a hub from which these tourists can first arrive at and then transfer to their final destination. It is this niche that Helsinki and the airport are filling. This is not a new concept, cities like Singapore and Reykjavik do it for their traveller demographics too, but does it fill a growing demand? You bet it does (here and here).

How intense has the attempt been? A Chinese celebrity was invited to Helsinki Vantaa and challenged in a competition #LifeinHel to stay at the airport, complete challenges and a win a trip to the Finnish Laplands. Obviously he succeeded.

Whether this is done with apparent joy or is purely a money-making attempt without a real interest in getting to know Asian cultures (in a reciprocal way) though will determine the long-term future of the enterprise. For now though, how have Helsinki Airport and Helsinki done for themselves? Things sure seem to be looking up.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.