Chinese tourists take pictures near The Jean Sibelius Monument in Helsinki. Photo: Telia / Shutterstock

According to Alibaba’s corporate news service, Alizila, Finland has become the first destination in the world to offer Chinese tourists an “all-Alipay” travel experience. Finland, perhaps one of the most aggressive destinations in the world in terms of rolling out Chinese-focused travel technology, is now said to have reached a level of adoption that allows Chinese tourists to enjoy a fully cashless experience in the country.

To demonstrate how far Finland has come with Alipay adoption across the tourism, hospitality, and retail industries, Alipay brought eight Alipay users to Finland for six days of “normal” Chinese tourism in the country, involving, e.g., sightseeing, shopping, and dining. The whole trip and almost all consumption during the trip were paid for using Alipay, including food, shopping, cab rides, tax refunds, etc.

Alipay ran an experiment to demonstrate how easy it is to Be a Cashless Chinese tourist in Finland

Zoe Cai, a 28-year-old housewife from China who was a part of Alipay’s experiment in Finland said the only time she used cash during the trip was at a supermarket in Rovaniemi. “At first, we were surprised when so many merchants accepted Alipay, but after this experience, we may be surprised if a merchant doesn’t accept Alipay when we travel next time,” Cai told Alizila.

While the experiment is very much a PR stunt by Alibaba to demonstrate how much utility can be extracted by a destination-wide rollout of Alipay payment systems, it is still an interesting proof of concept of Alibaba’s vision for the future of Chinese travel consumption. And even though Chinese travelers in Finland may still have to go out of their way to make sure that all the transactions they make are processed by Alipay, the experiment shows that the adoption rate in Finland has reached levels where limiting oneself to payments through Alipay is theoretically possible.

Alipay wants to convince more destinations to follow Finland’s lead

If Alipay and its local partners in Finland can demonstrate that Alipay adoption leads to strong growth in Chinese traveler-sourced revenue among local retailers and tourism companies, adoption may reach levels where it’s even practical for Chinese tourists to only use Alipay in the country.

And for Alipay, that is very much the goal. If it can convince destinations around the world that the Finnish model of widespread Alipay adoption helps attract more Chinese travelers, and to earn more revenue from Chinese travelers, then it will get one step closer to dominating Chinese mobile payments both at home and abroad. Its main competitors are Tencent’s WeChat Pay and UnionPay’s increasingly mobile-friendly payment methods—all of which are trying to make the case why they should be the preferred option for overseas destinations and retailers seeking more Chinese tourist revenue.

The battle between China’s mobile payment providers is heating up on the global stage

So how did Finland become the first “all-Alipay” destination? In comparison to many other destinations throughout Europe, North America, and Asia, it receives relatively few Chinese travelers. According to Visit Finland, China was Finland’s fifth-largest source market in 2017.

For smaller destinations such as Finland, brand recognition in China comes at a higher price than for tourism powerhouses such as France, Japan, and the United States. Put simply, Finland and many destinations like it don’t have world-famous tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower, Times Square, or Akihabara that will be sure to attract Chinese travelers, even without any effort. That’s not to say that Finland isn’t worth visiting—but it doesn’t sell itself to the same extent that other destinations often do.

Finland’s China strategy could prove an interesting model for other small destinations to follow

Instead, the country is making a concentrated push to portray itself an attractive destination for Chinese travelers, with Alipay adoption being one part of the equation. Beyond payments, flag carrier Finnair and Helsinki Airport have been very aggressive in pursuing direct flights from China, including from lower-tier cities. Finnair is also the official airline partner to the 2018 China-EU Tourism Year, underlining how important it sees the Chinese market. Positioning the city of Rovaniemi in Northern Finland as the “home of Santa” in the Chinese market and promoting the Finnish north as an exciting winter adventure destination where one can experience the northern lights as well as other winter-related activities and experiences is also playing into the hands of evolving Chinese tourism trends. These bets may just be paying off. According to Ctrip, Finland was the number-one trending destination for travel during the 2017-2018 winter holiday season.

That’s not to say that Alipay is the only reason that Finland is punching above its weight in Chinese travel, but it is certainly one part of the equation.