Chinese outcry at Heathrow duty free 'discrimination'

Neil Connor
The World Duty Free shop in Heathrow's Terminal Two allegedly discriminated against Chinese travellers - Reuters

A duty free shop at Heathrow Airport has triggered outcry in China and been criticised by state-run media after apparently being caught discriminating against the country’s passengers.

Britain’s busiest airport was targeted by a wave of anger from Chinese Internet users over allegations that Chinese consumers were being singled out and “ripped off".

The accusations emerged after an employee at retailer World Duty Free alleged they had seen the store offer 20 per cent VIP discount vouchers to customers spending £79 or more, while telling passengers travelling to China they had to spend £1,000 to qualify.

The employee’s account was viewed millions of times and attracted angry comments after being posted on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo.

The uproar led both Heathrow and the retailer to apologise and comes at a time when Chinese travellers are increasingly important to the UK economy.

Are British people in such great poverty they need to act without any sense of pride in this way?

Editorial in China's state-run Global Times

A Heathrow spokeswoman told the Telegraph: “We have been made aware of this offer which we find unacceptable. We are currently working with our commercial partner to understand how this happened and ensure it does not happen again.”

The airport told Chinese internet users it was apologising for the "controversy and high emotions" caused by its partner and the retailer had “corrected the issue with immediate effect”.

A spokeswoman for World Duty Free said the firm apologised profusely. She said: “The implementation of this promotion has been confusing which we sincerely regret.

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

“We have comprehensively re-briefed our staff in our stores to ensure that the promotion is clear. This offer applies regardless of the destination customers are flying to.”

UK's busiest airports

But the apologies were not enough to head off a hard-hitting editorial in China’s influential Global Times newspaper which accused the airport of "cultural discrimination" and deception.

The newspaper, which is published by the People's Daily - the Communist Party's mouthpiece newspaper - accused Heathrow of taking advantage of what it sees as "rich" Chinese travellers.

Chinese people will be thinking: “Are British people in such great poverty they need to act without any sense of pride in this way?" the popular tabloid said.

“When it comes to reasons behind this, apart from thinking that Chinese consumers are rich, they (Heathrow) may also think it is easy to deceive Chinese consumers and it will be hard to reveal if Chinese are being ripped off…... it is a cultural discrimination."

Chinese anger | Extracts from Global Times editorial on Heathrow duty free

The original post from the part-time employee of World Duty Free warned Chinese consumers: "On the one hand they want to take money from your pocket and on the other hand they treat you like a fool."

The anonymous post added: "I have been working in the UK for seven years, but this is the first time I have felt something so deeply unfair, and racist discrimination."

The staff member, who claimed to also be a student, called managers at the store in terminal two "white skinned pigs".

He said he had seen one traveller buy items worth over £300 and had accompanied the passenger to the till. However the cashier refused to hand over a VIP voucher, saying the threshold for Chinese passengers was £1,000. He alleged that when he complained, the store manager said the policy was applied only to shoppers who were departing to China.

Heathrow says around 1.2m Chinese passengers travel through the airport each year.

About 115,000 Chinese tourists visited the UK in the first half of last year, an increase of 47 percent on the same periodic the previous year.

Spending also increased to £231 million, up 54 percent, according to national tourism agency VisitBritain.