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As the first European airport to receive yearlong charters organized by a Chinese travel agency, Liege Airport welcomed the tourists from Xi’an with a lion dance performance and a water salute, in which the plane traveled under plumes of water expelled by fire trucks.

Beginning on April 20, Shenyang, Tianjin and Xi’an will be linked to Liege Airport through three direct flights a week by Utour International Travel Service, a large travel agency in China.

On Mondays, Chinese tourists will arrive in Liege from Xi’an. Flights from Shenyang will arrive on Wednesdays while Tianjin tourists will arrive on Saturdays.

Utour, which claims to have 20 years of experience in the European tourism market, says it is capitalizing on Chinese tourists’ growing fondness and wherewithal to travel to Europe as well as the lack of travel links between the continent and second-tier cities in China.

The cooperation deal between Liege Airport and Utour is for one year.

“These have enabled us to seize the opportunity to develop this charter program with Liege Airport and bridge these two potential markets directly,” says Zhang Lei, vice-president of Utour.

Zhang says capacity for the first three travel groups is already full at 387 tourists each. Since the period from April to October is the best time to visit Europe, he says, “our program will fulfill numerous Chinese customers’ desires to travel in Europe.”

Chinese tourists will fly in on board an Airbus A330-300 from I-Fly, a charter airline based in Moscow, that has a capacity of 387 seats. From Liege, they will be able to visit Belgium and several European countries by tourist buses.

“The nice thing about Liege is that outside Liege, you can reach the most interesting destinations without having to fly again,” says Steven Verhasselt, director of the Liege Airport’s Asia office. “In one week you can discover nice parts of Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and France.”

The historical Belgian city is also another advantage. Located 102 kilometers east of Brussels, Liege lies at an important motorway network linking Paris, Amsterdam and Cologne, Germany. It is also located a few miles away from Maastricht, Holland.

Originally a military base, the 25-year-old airport primarily handles cargoe and charters and is the largest cargo airport in Belgium. Its modern terminal accommodates 1.5 million passengers every year.

Verhasselt says another reason for the cooperation with Utour is the fact that the airport can offer services bigger airports cannot.

When tourists disembark, they will see many signs at the airport written in Chinese. The airport has also hired landing and security services workers who can speak Mandarin.

To address one of the biggest complaints among Chinese tourists when they travel abroad – the difficulty in obtaining warm or hot water at the airport – Liege Airport has installed water dispensers that provide warm water in waiting areas.

“We are really preparing and making sure that when they arrive here, it feels like their Chinese home in Europe,” says Verhasselt, who says he knows how important warm water is for Chinese through his experience at airports in China and his 10-year residence in Hong Kong.

“When flights linking China and Belgium arrive, Liege Airport will be a Chinese airport and we will be focused on serving the Chinese.”

Europe has always been a hot destination for Chinese.

According to the statistics from the China National Tourism Administration, the number of Chinese tourists overseas topped 100 million in 2014, with 3.5 percent of them traveling to Europe, making the continent the third largest market for Chinese tourists. The United States attracted 2.7 percent of the total number of Chinese tourists going abroad last year.

As China’s middle class expands in size and wealth, more Chinese tourists are expected to travel abroad, although Europe has recently been a big attraction because the exchange rate between the yuan and the euro has continually dropped. As of April 9, one euro equaled 6.64 yuan.

Many European nations within the Schengen area, which is made up of 26 countries that functions as a single country for most international travel purposes, have also simplified visa application procedures. For example, the visa application for Belgium can be delivered by express mail, while the French Schengen visa can be delivered within 48 hours.

Zhang Lei from Utour says it plans to create programs to meet Chinese tourists’ needs for driving, booking honeymoons and taking photography tours.

Utour says it has nearly 20 group travel routes in Europe that start from Liege and seven- and 14-day independent travel routes for solo tourists.

Right now, he says it is critical to find enough comfortable and affordable accommodations for Chinese tourists.

“One of the issues is that our hotels are not big enough to accommodate such big groups of tourists from chartered flights,” he says.

Verhasselt hopes a Chinese company can become a partner with a European counterpart to jointly offer services for Chinese and European tourists.

In doing so, he says: “We can adapt, we can learn, but in the end people tend to do business together. We hope this can be the trigger for investment from the Chinese tourist industry to discover Liege and Belgium.”

Courtesy Fu Jing and Gao Shuang(China Daily Europe)

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