China is without a doubt one the world’s most important tourism source markets, if not the most important. There is still huge potential for Chinese tourism, less than 10 percent of Chinese citizens have passports but Chinese travelers made a whopping 130 million trips in 2017. Even the most well-known and popular destinations around the world have room for growth in attracting Chinese travelers, and city and national governments around the world are making substantial investments in marketing to China, often in cooperation with destination marketing organizations (DMOs).

However, it’s not destinations like New York or Paris that stands to make the most headway in marketing. Rather, it’s smaller, lesser-known destinations that stand to gain the most from marketing in the short term, and in these destinations, DMOs are arguably more important than in better-known tourism cities and states.

Lesser-known destinations don’t benefit from “free advertising” via word of mouth or media presence that larger destinations do, DMO marketing can bridge this gap

Unlike the world’s most famous cities, up-and-coming destinations for Chinese tourists have to depend more on marketing and an online presence available in Chinese to reach Chinese travelers. This is in part because they are not as present in the global cultural discourse, particularly film and television media. However, they are also at a substantial disadvantage when it comes to word of mouth marketing.

The level of preparedness of local business communities is another concern in this regard. It’s relatively common knowledge among businesses in Tokyo or London that accepting Alipay and/or WeChat Pay and having an online Chinese language presence (via WeChat, Weibo, a Chinese language website etc.) can help drive patronage by Chinese travelers. However, for destinations that haven’t yet attracted substantial numbers of Chinese travelers, businesses may understandably still be lagging behind in being prepared for Chinese travelers.

DMOs can help both destinations and businesses bridge this gap by providing useful information for businesses on how to prepare, while at the same time providing marketing to promote awareness of smaller destinations within the China market.

For lesser-known destinations, progress can be dramatic, in large because of the relative inexperience of the Chinese travel market. Many Chinese travelers have only recently gone abroad for the first time and are largely unaware of less-prominent destinations. DMOs can not only help increase the number of Chinese visitors through marketing, but also help ensure the local businesses are better equipped to cater to the needs of Chinese travelers and encourage positive word of mouth in China.

Edinburgh serves as one of the best examples of how quickly Chinese tourism can grow in a short amount of time

Edinburgh has been one of the most prominent examples of how quickly a destination and a DMO can drive Chinese tourism growth. The number of Chinese arrivals to Edinburgh reportedly grew by 40 percent in little over a year, in part because of a social media campaign launched by the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group in November 2016.

It’s hard to pin down to what extent this social media campaign drove Chinese tourism growth. However, given how small the relative number of Chinese tourists is in Scotland, such a campaign wouldn’t have to entice many travelers to achieve substantial growth in Chinese arrivals for Edinburgh or Scotland as a whole. Of course, Scotland and Edinburgh have no doubt benefited greatly from the weaker pound, much like the United Kingdom has as a whole.

According to VisitScotland, in 2016 the United States was Scotland’s biggest tourism source market, with Americans representing 16 percent of total trips with 451,000 trips and 28 percent of total spending with some 510 million pounds (approx. $637.5 million in December 2016 USD) spent. China on the other hand only represented 1 percent of total trips to Scotland with 41,000 trips and 2 percent of spending with 36 million pounds spent.

With only 41,000 trips made by Chinese tourists to Scotland in 2016, even growth of a few thousand trips in year represents substantial progress

Considering that the Edinburgh Chinese Social Media Campaign claims to have had some 60,000 followers and some 66 million his across all of its channels, it’s not hard to see how the campaign could help Chinese tourism grow from 41,000 trips in 2016.

On the other hand, for destinations more established with Chinese travelers, in Europe and elsewhere, such campaigns are less likely to make such dramatic gains. Chinese tourists, for the most part, likely already have a good idea of what they want to see or do in Paris or New York. However, given the substantial growth potential for outbound Chinese tourism, DMOs in less-established destinations are a necessary link in providing resources to help get business communities informed and prepared for Chinese tourists as well as making Chinese tourists aware of lesser-known destinations.

In a rapidly developing Chinese tourism market, smaller destinations both have everything to win and everything to lose in marketing. A successful marketing campaign can make Chinese arrivals skyrocket and establish the destination on the mindmap of Chinese travelers for years to come. Failing to make a dent, on the other hand, will leave a smaller destination in the shadow of global tourism juggernauts that in many ways continue to get free “lunches” in the Chinese tourism market.