A duty-free store at Heathrow Airport's departure lounge. Photo: iStock
A duty-free store at Heathrow Airport's departure lounge. Photo: iStock

Politics is an art and sometimes the brushstrokes end up being smudged. In this case, there was too much red on the palatte when a row erupted at London’s Heathrow Airport over a duty-free promotion which left Chinese tourists feeling “ripped off.”

For the United Kingdom, it was certainly not the image Prime Minister Theresa May was keen to project after seriously courting Beijing in the run-up to leaving the European Union.

Part of her Brexit plan is to thrash out a comprehensive trade deal with the world’s second-largest economy when the UK leaves the single market bloc next year.

She even went on a charm offensive earlier this month when she met President Xi Jinping in China to cement the “New Golden Era” between the two countries, which was ushered in by her predecessor, David Cameron, back in 2015.

So, a high-profile spate involving Chinese tourists at the weekend was not the publicity “Auntie May,” as she is known in Beijing’s state-owned media, was looking for.

As the fallout spread, Heathrow Airport’s commercial partner, World Duty Free, was forced to apologize after offering different rates to customers in a fanfare promotion.

Chinese tourists, it was later discovered, were asked to spend a minimum of £1,000 (US$1,381) to receive a 20% discount, while other shoppers received the same offer for buying products worth £250.

“We have been made aware of this [and] find it unacceptable,” a Heathrow spokesperson said. “We are currently working with our commercial partner to understand how this happened and ensure it does not happen again.”

But not before the row went viral on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. After the policy was revealed in a blog posted by “Renjiannaipao,” more than 10 million users voiced their outrage with one person putting up a picture of a flyer, in Chinese characters, which offered discounts to tourists spending over £1,000.

“The duty-free case proves racism festers deeply in the psyche of some British people and should be condemned,” Cui Hongjian, the director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, told the conservative, state-owned Global Times.

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Claims of “discrimination” flooded cyberspace, despite World Duty Free issuing a second apology from its headquarters in the Swiss city of Basel on Monday.

“The VIP program is designed to reward customers – on top of our normal promotions – at certain points of the year by offering an attractive incentive on a second purchase,” the latest statement pointed out.

“After close self-examination and having made further investigations, we have taken urgent steps to correct the implementation of this promotion going forward.”

Chinese tourism is big business in the UK. Last year, visitors spent an estimated £667 million, Visit Britain, the country’s tourist authority, reported. To put that into perspective, about 115,000 Chinese tourists visited the country in the first half of 2017, an increase of 47% compared to the same period a year earlier.

In the past decade, Chinese visitors have become known for their financial power, a reputation they deserve.

“They accounted for a quarter of Heathrow’s duty-free sales in 2015, even though they made up only 1% of passengers that year,” Mafengwo, an online travel site, reported in its global travel shopping survey, according to the media outlet Sixth Tone.

During the October “Golden Week” break last year, they spent £29 million in the UK and British retailers will be hoping for a similar boost during the Chinese New Year period after disappointing domestic figures for the traditional January sales.

Analysts at Forward Keys, which specializes in global travel patterns and is based in Spain, are expecting an 8% rise in the number of Chinese tourists for the February celebrations compared with last year, the Daily Telegraph in London reported.

But that was before the Heathrow controversy threatened to tarnish the “New Golden Era” partnership between the two countries.

“Are British people in such great poverty they need to act without any sense of pride in this way?” Global Times, which is published by China’s Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, said in an editorial.

Like art, perception is everything in politics, and this has been a bad week for “Auntie May” and Sino-British relations.

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