Chinese outbound travelers are not a monolith, and customized travel experiences are becoming increasingly popular. While this is often associated with younger FITs, older, wealthier Chinese travelers are also going abroad to seek new experiences. One such increasingly popular experience is garden travel and flower tourism. We spoke to one such tour organizer, Cai Wanzi, to learn more about this market. 

Do garden travelers really exist in China? This is the question often raised to Ms. Cai. In the past decade, she has been promoting the garden lifestyle in China through books, talks, and her highly popular “world garden tour.” From the charming Loire Valley in France, to private gardens in Belgium, she has led her garden club members to explore wonderful gardens around the world. “If tourism officials assume Chinese are not interested in their gardens, they miss a big opportunity,” said Ms. Cai with a confident smile.

How did you start the world garden tours?
Over 10 years ago, we gathered at Sohu horticulture forum. Then with the rise of social media, we formed a WeChat community called the garden club. As I often shared my garden travels online, many garden friends urged me to create our own tours. If we go with a normal travel agent, it may give us just 30 minutes to quickly stroll through a beautiful garden and then get back on the bus. Agents are also not familiar with private gardens. I visit the private gardens myself and include them in the itinerary for the next year. Since 2010, we have been venturing further every year. In 2018, we have five routes covering California, France, Switzerland, New Zealand, and even the Maldives. Once a garden lover joins a tour, she will always come back for more!

So who are the garden travelers in China?
They are mature ladies between 30 and 55 years old. First of all, they are well-off, as many of them actually own a garden in expensive cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Second, they have time. For young office workers, taking a week off to see the gardens is a luxury. Naturally, many tour participants are housewives. Surprisingly, they are very well-traveled. If they are going to France, they are more keen to discover the secret town of roses in Loire Valley than going to the usual Eiffel Tower or Louvre. They have already done that!

What are the preferences of Chinese garden travelers?
They love to discover the stories behind private gardens. Compared with public parks and botanic gardens, a private garden tells the life story of its owner. In Belgium, we visited the inspiring Dina Deferme’s Garden. Over 20 years ago, Dina was burned in a car accident and went through numerous surgeries. She retreated from the world to create this garden, which slowly healed her pain and inspired her soul to blossom. Today, she is a well-known garden designer in Belgium. We were delighted to interact with her over a cup of tea and hear her tips on gardening.

Moreover, they embrace creative experiences. Our travelers make tasty marmalade, paint flowers with watercolors, and even fold fresh pandan leaves into green roses. A little bit shopping is welcome, too. We visit local antique shops to source tea sets and accessories. Once, our “treasure hunt” in the famous Tongeren Market was featured in the local newspaper.

Chinese garden travelers held a tea party with the theme of blue and white porcelain. Photo: The Garden Club.

What was the special highlight for Chinese garden travelers?
Once, we planned an afternoon tea with the theme of blue and white porcelain. Everyone brought blue or white dresses and tea party decorations. It was the first time for many to arrange an afternoon tea with oriental flair in a Western garden. There was a special feeling of ceremony and even the owners were excited to join our porcelain party. Instead of merely wandering around gardens, we have brought our own culture and enjoyed the sparks of ideas. That afternoon we “flooded” WeChat moments with photos and won the envy of many.

How is garden travel relevant for destinations, airlines, and other businesses?
Take Belgium, for example. Most Chinese travelers would not take it seriously as a destination. At most, they would stop over in Belgium for a day or two on their way somewhere else. But in our garden tour, we spent 14 days in Belgium. It has a good garden tour system and over 200 private gardens are open for visitation in the last weekend of June. With the support of Visit Flanders, I even turned photos taken in Belgian gardens into an exhibition at Shanghai Botanic Garden this March.

Last July, in collaboration with Switzerland Tourism, we had a lovely evening on a lavender hill near Beijing. With the gentle summer breeze, we savored Swiss deserts and lavender tea and let our thoughts fly freely to the Swiss gardens.

More businesses start to realize the potential of Chinese garden travelers. When Hainan Airlines launched a Beijing – San Jose flight in 2015 and Shenzhen – Brussels flight in 2018, we were invited to experience the new routes. The private banking unit of China Everbright Bank also supported our 2018 garden auction (a charity event to auction everything from flower tea to plant seeds) to attract potential clients.

What advice would you give to foreign tourism boards?

Approach China market with an open mind. Some tourism officials have a fixed mindset. The Spanish would promote paella and football to Chinese people. They never think Chinese people would be interested in their gardens! However, in southern Spain, they have the charming town of Cordoba, where people decorate their courtyards with blue pots of flowers and celebrate their love for life every May.

Short videos could be a vivid way to market a destination. Last summer, I took the short video team Kehua to Belgium and shot seven popular episodes of its amazing gardens. One garden owner Chris is over 50 years old but he still behaves like a small child. In front of our camera crew, he ran up and then jumped into the pond in his garden. His energy was infectious. Gardening makes people younger!

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