The people of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have not always embarked on such grand adventures. Between 1949 and 1974, China was completely cut off from the rest of the world. Things began to change when Deng Xiaoping took over the reins that fell to the ground with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, prompting a series of careful reforms that transformed the Chinese gaze into a little less inward. This created the unique experience of Europeans and Americans coming to observe the walls of the Forbidden City, but it also meant that planes were flying in the opposite direction.
First there was caution, then there was the rush. In the 80s, foreign travel was still a niche concept, but in the 90s it was no longer a strange fruit, let alone forbidden. It was a coveted luxury for the wealthy and was increasingly seen as essential by a burgeoning middle class with disposable income to burn. In the 2000s, Chinese tourists were a regular sight in Paris, London and Rome.
Britain has certainly been a popular destination. In 2005, Chinese tourists made 95,000 visits to the UK. This figure exceeded 800,000 for the first time in 2017 and reached 883,000 in 2019. Without the sudden intervention of Covid, it is possible that the million mark would have already been reached.
The vast majority of those tourists will have made a stopover in London – queuing for the gates of Buckingham Palace, which has long topped the list of things to see in China. A significant proportion will have gone on to Bicester Village, the clear second favourite. Although founded in 1995, before the boom, this mile-long strip of shops has established itself as a staple of any Chinese party on British soil.
For the most part, it has been a matter of clever marketing – Bicester Village does not position itself as a discount mall (although, with prices up to 70% below retail price, it does is indeed the case), but as a luxury shopping destination.
The European fashion brands offered here – such as Armani, Balenciaga, Fendi, Gucci, Prada, Swarovski and Versace – are highly coveted in China. And while they’re not impossible to find in Beijing and Shanghai, their availability at lower prices and tax-free has made Bicester Village irresistible. He is fully aware of it. Before the pandemic, it employed 150 Mandarin speakers to help shoppers with their purchases.