Chinese tourists upset over 'duty-free' discrimination at London's Heathrow Airport

Passengers walking towards the UK border control at Terminal 2 of Heathrow Airport in London. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON - London's Heathrow Airport has apologised for a promotion at its duty-free stores that required Chinese shoppers to spend a higher amount than other travellers to enjoy a special discount.

Chinese travellers were asked to pay a minimum spend of £1,000 (S$1,831) to receive a 20 per cent discount voucher for subsequent purchases, while other shoppers needed to spend only £250 to receive the same offer, reported BBC News.

The promotion is run by Heathrow Airport's commercial partner World Duty Free.

The unfair policy sparked outrage on social media after a Chinese student who worked at the store posted about it on China's widely-used microblog platform Weibo on Sunday. The post has been viewed over 10 million times.

The part-time sales assistant at Terminal 2 said that he tried to get the voucher for a Chinese woman who had around £300 worth of Chanel products in her shopping basket, but the cashier told him she needed to spend £1,000 because she was Chinese.

The store manager, according to news website Sixth Tone, later told him that the offer was indeed a "little bit unfair".

"I've been in England for seven years. This is the first time that I've felt injustice and racism so deeply," wrote the student, who also referred to store management as "white-skinned pigs".

Other travellers responded with their experiences, some vowing not to shop at the airport again.

@Julialovekshwrote on Twitter: "Will never shop in the duty free store at Heathrow any more. Chinese customers deserve to be treated with respect!! What a hideous and discriminating event to happen in 2018!! Disgusting."

@QianyunZhu_zqy tweeted: "Shame on you World Duty Free! When celebrating Chinese New Year with promotion info in Twitter, please remember Chinese customers are still waiting for your official explanation and apology for the racial discrimination. What a racist and two-faced company."

"Imagine if this was another race, this incident would have already been a huge talking point," read one comment which received 2,000 likes.

"Chinese people are not respected outside of the country," added another user, while one asked, "Where do Chinese people go to get respect?"

On Monday, World Duty Free - one of hundreds of independent stores at Heathrow - issued a statement on Weibo, saying that it had investigated and rectified the issue.

The company, which is headquartered in Bern, Switzerland, did not respond to requests from the China Daily newspaper for an explanation.

Heathrow Airport also apologised on Weibo and Twitter, saying that the retailer now "offers the same benefits for travellers to all destinations".

Chinese tourists are increasingly seen as big spenders across the world.

Chinese travellers accounted for a quarter of Heathrow's duty-free sales in 2015, though they made up only one per cent of passengers that year, according to travel website Mafengwo's global travel shopping report.

During the October Golden Week travel period in 2017, Chinese tourists spent £29 million in shopping districts across the UK.

The number of Chinese visitors to the UK increased by 33 per cent in 2017.

They collectively spent £667 million, according to UK tourism authority VisitBritain.

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