ROME, Italy — In Italy, most cities still lack a direct flight to the island of Sardinia, the second-largest and arguably most breathtaking island in the Mediterranean. It's a convenience the residents of Shanghai, however, might have shortly.
The island, with its turquoise waters, white-sand beaches and purple-flowered fields, has been chosen by China's financial capital as the preeminent “exotic honeymoon paradise” for couples.
A massive promotional campaign aimed at boosting Chinese tourism on the island has been jointly launched by Shanghai's municipality and Sardinia's authorities.
“China is a growing market," said Giorgio Macioccu, head of the north Sardinia hotel and tourism association. "Its rising middle class has started to travel around the world and loves everything that is branded 'Made in Italy.' There are millions of potential tourists that one day will come visit our beautiful island."
In 2009, China was the fourth-biggest spender after France, the United States and Spain of tourism dollars, with over $40 billion spent on traveling to foreign destinations, according to the U.N. World Tourism Organization. And the sector is set to increase by 20 percent a year: by 2020 more than a hundred million Chinese tourists will globe-trot.
And Italy has become the Chinese tourists' preferred vacation spot, an opportunity that Sardinia (whose economy solely relies on tourism) is relishing.
Macioccu's dream is to turn his home town into a top Chinese destination for newlyweds. It's a refection of how hot China's nuptials market has become.
Delegations of Sardinia's hotel-keepers, led by Macioccu, regularly participate in Shanghai's global Nuptial Tourism Fair, where they recently signed an agreement with Shanghai's authorities aimed at increasing wedding-related tourism to the island.
Macioccu said that each year in Shanghai about 150,000 weddings were celebrated and most of the couples already chose the Mediterranean islands as their honeymoon destination. The "added value" in terms of business for Sardinian tourism comes from the longstanding tradition of "collective wedding trips," which involving the couples' parents, families and friends.
The Chinese couples' favorite months for their wedding trip are May, September and October, the low-season in Sardinia. On the island, enormous investments are being made to train hotel personnel in welcoming and making the Chinese tourists feel at home. The employees of the most exclusive resorts are learning Chinese language, culture and traditions.
Chinese tour operators have toured Sardinia's four biggest cities to experience first-hand how they can market them at home.
Bilateral ties between China and Sardinia officially kicked-off in October, when Shanghai-based commercial giant Huai Hai Group chose the northern part of the island as the ideal location for the “Rose Wedding” reality show featuring the most romantic honeymoon moments of 16 Chinese couples.
For the first time Sardinia's warm sunsets, panoramas and cuisine were broadcast live on China's televisions. The show was a hit — drawing an estimated 175 million Chinese viewers.
“We have signed a co-marketing agreement to promote Sardinia across all China through tourist agencies and tour operators who are offering special packages to Chinese customers,” Macioccu said.
Trip catalogues and a Sardinian website have been translated into Mandarin. The next step is to shorten distances through the launch of a direct flight linking Shanghai to Sardinia's three international airports.
But what attracts the Chinese to such the tiny island?
“They're fascinated by our natural beauties. But it's not only a question of sunbathing and snorkeling,” Macioccu said. “Chinese tourists are great explorers, they like to discover new places and love archaeology.” What leaves them totally speechless is the typical 'nuraghe,' a primitive Stonehenge-like rock construction built by early humans.
The Chinese apparently have a soft spot as well for the island's food: honey-roasted piglet, fish eggs ("bottarga"), spaghetti with sea urchins and shell-like pasta called "maloreddu." A number of Chinese chefs are visiting Sardinia soon to learn the local cuisine and report back to China's elite restaurants.
Several Shanghai shopping centers have already ordered 40,000 bottles of Sardinia's top aromatic red wine as well as olive oil to give their clients a “taste” of the Italian island. All Chinese people will soon be able to buy the typical agro-food products at Shanghai's airports and so-called “Sardinia boutiques” are expected to open across China in the near future.