For small, lesser-known, long-haul destinations, marketing in China is a major challenge. Getting Chinese tourists to spend thousands of dollars, or even tens of thousands, to travel halfway around the world to a place they’ve never heard of is a hard sell to say the least. A new online travel agency (OTA), Hey! Belgium, is taking a unique approach in attempting to place Belgium on the radar of Chinese tourists through a polished customized travel portal.

While Belgium is a country with a rich history, it attracts few Chinese tourists, with less than 150,000 arriving in Belgium in 2016. Many major platforms, particularly Ctrip, are attempting to utilize customized itineraries that lie somewhere between group and independent travel to facilitate long-haul travel. What makes the new Hey! Belgium OTA’s itineraries unique is that they’re designed for only one destination, Belgium.

Hey! Belgium mirrors the growing trend of customized travel packages among Chinese OTAs, but it is still exclusively focused on independent travelers

Hey! Belgium is a new OTA that helps travelers plan and book itineraries exclusively within the small Western European country. It’s a pragmatic approach for marketing Belgium, a destination largely unknown in China. Users can go to the site, pick what “kind” of tourist they are and their interests, and Hey! Belgium will produce a customized tour to fit the number of days they intend to spend in the country (one to five days). After reviewing, customers can pay for virtually every leg of the trip with credit or debit, WeChat Pay, or Alipay, among other payment options and receive vouchers for activities.

The site is currently available in English and Chinese and is clearly designed with the Chinese millennial and free independent traveler (FIT) demographics in mind, reflected it its youthful marketing and something representatives from the organization made clear during their presentation at the ITB China conference recently. The site is specifically designed to guide Chinese tourists on where to travel independently.

Hey! Belgium’s success will depend on its ability to stand out crowded Chinese OTA field, successful partnerships with other OTAs, airlines, DMOs will be key

The success or failure of the new platform will lie in its ability to stand out among an increasingly crowded OTA market. By default, Hey! Belgium will never become a staple of Chinese travelers in Europe because of its singular focus on Belgium. Rather, it will have to have laser-focused marketing to make potential users aware of its existence and make itself indispensable to those users to encourage word-of-mouth marketing. To do this, the platform will likely need to partner with other OTAs and airlines catering to Chinese tourists traveling to Europe. Social media marketing on WeChat or other platforms will also help, but partnerships will likely be more significant.

When a Chinese tourist books a flight, he or she needs to be aware that Hey! Belgium can help plan an itinerary, otherwise, the platform will likely get passed over for a tour group or even a self-planned tour. Fortunately, the platform already lists Hainan Airlines, which operates direct flights to Belgium from China, and Qyer.com, a Chinese booking and travel blog site, as two of their partners.

Hey! Belgium is not just about sales, it’s also an effort to promote Belgium itself, which is why the platform is partnering with three of Belgium’s most important DMOs

Of course, the platform also goes a long way in marketing Belgium as a destination, it’s clear that it exists beyond simply driving sales through the platform itself.

This is probably why Hey! Belgium is also partnering with some of the country’s biggest destination marketing organizations, Wallonia TourismVisit Flanders, and Visit Brussels. Hey! Belgium, and its DMO partners are operating this push on the pragmatic assumption that Chinese tourists, no matter how knowledgeable, will not come to Europe only to tour Belgium. Attracting these tourists requires marketing products that can fit well within a broader European tour. The platform seeks to facilitate this by allowing travelers with little time to fit a customized itinerary into a packed schedule, without forcing tourists to give up their independence.

Of course, the success or failure of Hey! Belgium will have little impact on the broader travel and OTA landscape. After all, the platform exclusively plans independent itineraries for Belgium.  Still, it could help raise Belgium’s profile as a destination worth spending time in on a larger European tour. Perhaps more importantly, the platform might represent another example of how creativity in marketing can help smaller, virtually unknown destinations in China, punch well above their weight. Finland provides the most dramatic example of successful creative marketing. Whether Belgium will be the next underdog destination to succeed in the Chinese tourism remains to be seen.

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