Explaining Christmas: Nuremberg Tries Luring Chinese Tourists to Market

By Nora Gantenbrink

In its efforts to increase tourism, the city of Nuremberg, home to the world-famous Christkindlesmarkt, is seeking to attract more visitors from China. But a recent visit by Chinese guests to the market demonstrated how challenging it can be to pitch the holiday to guests from Shanghai or Beijing.  

Can the Chinese be enticed to buy traditional tin toys when they visit Nuremberg? Will they enjoy the flavor of the local winter speciality, Lebkuchen gingerbread treats? What about the local culinary speciality of grilled bratwurst on a bed of sauerkraut?

Zhang Jun, 35, has come to Nuremberg seeking answers to these very questions. Zhang works for the German National Tourist Board in China. Commissioned by the German government, he has put together a nine person delegation of tourism experts from Shanghai and is giving them a quick tour of the Christkindlesmarkt, together with Nuremberg city guide Claudia Radtke.

It is through this group that Nuremberg is hoping to attract tourists from China to the city. Home to the world's second-biggest economy, China is important. Besides, with newfound money and eased travel restrictions, Europe has become a favored destination for many Chinese. If everything goes according to plan, the nine tourism experts will soon offer package tours each winter to Germany to visit the Christmas markets. That, of course, would be a Christmas fairy tale come true for a city like Nuremberg.

'Winter Trips with Markets'

But can Nuremberg succeed in selling the idea of Christmas to the Chinese? After all, it's not a holiday the Chinese pay much attention to. It isn't a tradition in a country where the majority of people are either Buddhists or not religious at all. While the Chinese language does have characters for writing the words for Christmas, people don't have any real emotional attachment to the December holiday.

Zhang admits it will be a hard sell. "Christmas trips to Germany will be difficult to offer in China, so it would be better if we called them winter trips with markets," he says, standing in the freezing cold at Nuremberg's main market after an 11-hour flight.

"This here is our famous Nuremberg Christmas angel," tour guide Radtke says in Chinese, as she holds a photo up in the air. A new Christmas angel is selected each year, and with her white and gold dress, long blonde curls and golden crown, she has become the symbol of the city's Christmas market. The Chinese stand in a half-circle around her, rubbing their hands against each other and remaining largely silent.

Nuremberg isn't home to the oldest or the biggest Christmas market in Germany, but it is certainly the most famous, attracting some 2 million visitors each year. Most of the visitors to the Christkindlesmarkt come from Italy, the United States or Austria. With the country falling into 13th place in the rankings for visitors, comparably few Chinese visitors come to the market each year. City officials are keen to change that, and they are placing considerable hope on the Chinese.

"The Chinese have a lot of money," says the city's tourism director. "They could spend it here."

Zhang Jun says the concept of Christmas is not one that is universally understood in China. He says Christmas has only been imported to the larger cities, where it is largely a celebration of consumer culture. It has a status similar to that of the American tradition of Halloween in Germany, meaning that it is recognized, but not widely celebrated.

Can Christmas Compete with Prada?

What the Chinese are interested in, Zhang says, is the combination of Germany and shopping. He starts listing off store names: Prada, Hugo Boss, Rolex, or shops that sell creations from German jeweller Thomas Sabo. The Chinese are looking for lovely things, and their only concern is that they aren't counterfeited. Besides the fact that for their purposes, Berlin is a bigger draw than Nuremberg, winter might not be the only challenge in marketing to the Chinese. Christmas is also a Christian celebration. And Zhang notes that shopping trips are far more likely to attract the Chinese than, say, snow skiing.

At a Lebkuchen stand, a saleswoman gives the visitors samples of Elisenlebkuchen, the local Lebkuchen specialty. "It tastes a little like a moon cake," Radtke says, referring to the Chinese treats served during the autumn Moon Festival there. The Chinese guests take their time chewing the Lebkuchen. One woman even spits her piece down onto the historic cobblestones beneath her. Not a single guest buys a bag.

And what about a locally made Rauschgold gold foil angel? Would a gold foil angel interest the Chinese? "Something like that could make for a souvenir," Zhang Jun offers politely about the traditional Christmas decoration.

"Does anyone here know who Martin Luther is?" Radtke asks in Chinese. No, they answer. The city guide says the intricacies of the Reformation are sometimes difficult for Chinese visitors to understand. The same applies to the Holy Roman Empire. "It's basically in Europe," she says. Of course, the tour cannot end without a mention of the city's most famous son, painter Albrecht Dürer. The travel group remains silent. Then they take photographs of mustard jars and the goods displayed in a jewellery store.

Connecting Prosperity with Christmas

Radtke still believes it will be possible to bring the Christmas celebrations and the Chinese together. In 2010, around 20,000 Chinese people spent a night in the city. Radtke says she also gave at least twice as many tours in Chinese this year as last. And it appears there is a corollary between growing prosperity in China and an interest in Christmas.

The participants on Zhang Jun's trip now stand holding their first cup of Glühwein, or mulled wine, in their hands, pressing their lips together and attempting to pronounce "Prost," German for "cheers," though it sounds more like they are clearing their throats. One participant asks Radtke where she can find a German watch store.

A children's choir sings in front of the Church of our Lady (Frauenkirche). A Chinese manager compares his camera with that of the SPIEGEL photographer.

The Chinese man inspects it very thoroughly before presenting his own camera. It's a Canon EOS 5D. Then he laughs, saying his is better.

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1. So much for lessons of history
Keir 12/23/2011
I've seen convoys of Audis being driven through Munich with Chinese flags from the front whilst the citizens had to stand and wait. Yesterday huge Chinese flags hung from hotels in Erding. Now Germany is prostituting itself to get more money and cutom, regardless of the source. When it's not apologising for the Russians it's kowtowing to the Chinese. Does Germany not stand for anything besides balanced books? http://tracesofevil.com
2. *
BTraven 01/02/2012
It seems to me that London has been more attractive to Chinese spending lot of money abroad than Nuremberg nevertheless the prospects of the town are excellent – the only problem is that it takes a long time to get there. It could be a great disadvantage in winter. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/dec/31/west-end-stores-chinese-tourists
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