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How Asian Social Media Transformed a Quiet U.K. Walking Spot

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© Andrew Testa for The New York Times

By AMIE TSANG, The New York Times
EAST SUSSEX, England

To an online travel site popular with younger Chinese travelers, the cliffs about two hours’ drive south of London are a “windy paradise.” In June, a South Korean actress shared a picture of herself at the cliffs, along with a video in which she stands uncomfortably close to the vertiginous edge. And the stars of a Korean reality television show visited them in a spring episode.

“When we search for London on social media, it’s the first thing we see,” Hyeon Hui Shin, a 28-year-old tourist from South Korea, said of the East Sussex cliffs, known as the Seven Sisters. “I didn’t know it was so far from London!”

The Seven Sisters — stark, white chalk cliffs facing the English Channel — have long been popular among hikers, a hardy, “walking type,” said Fran Downton, a marketing manager at Tourism South East, the region’s tourist board.

But over the past two years, visitors from China have been increasingly hopping on trains to make day trips here from London. Travelers from South Korea have now started joining them. And they are largely inspired by the cliffs’ appearances in social media, films — especially the “Harry Potter” series — and by recommendations from celebrities.

This summer, the burgeoning visitor demographic was clear to see, with people lining the cliffs’ edge, posing for photos. The number of visitors to East Sussex from that region has also been up even in the cooler fall months.

When Ms. Shin came from South Korea to see a friend studying near London, a visit to the cliffs was a priority.

“It’s the first thing: I told her I want to see Seven Sisters,” she said, explaining in the blustery wind that the cliffs caught her imagination before Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and even the white cliffs at Dover.

Local officials see the influx of visitors as an opportunity. The local council’s tourism branch is considering adding a visitor center and looking at ways to entice these international travelers to stay longer and explore nearby towns. It is also looking for partner organizations in China to help with promotion.

The new visitors also reflect a broader change in Britain’s tourism demographics. The country’s tourism agency, Visit Britain, notes in its annual reports that young, social media-savvy visitors are increasingly making their way to Britain from China and South Korea.

“They are independent, looking for something different,” Ms. Downton said. “They don’t want to be herded around.”

Her agency has hired a Chinese student to post on the Chinese platform WeChat and help reach this audience. On his advice, it switched from URLs to QR codes on promotional literature and started to publicize Chinese restaurants, along with information on where local fare like fish and chips can be found.

It also started providing more information on public transport for the more independent travelers.

“We don’t like to follow tours,” said Shi Yu Liu, 42, a hip-hop dancer and teacher from China. “You may have to leave very quickly. You can’t enjoy it.”

He and his friends had driven to the cliffs, stopping off at Brighton to enjoy oysters and smoked fish. For them, the visit to the British countryside was a wholesome way to escape the frenetic pace of life in Guangzhou, where they live.

“In China, there are lots of people,” Mr. Liu said. “You can enjoy the time here.”

One of his companions, 27-year-old Natalie Chi, a gallery manager, proclaimed that the cliffs looked just as good as they did when they appeared in the film Atonement. “It makes me feel like humans are so small,” she said.

The growing number of visitors has raised concerns about the risks of having so many people high up on the cliffs. Last year, Hyewon Kim, a Korean student, died after losing her footing there. Before that, Beachy Head, a nearby headland, was known as a spot where people died by suicide.

There is danger of the cliffs crumbling, too. They recede by about 10 to 15 inches a year, and over two months in 2014, about 16 feet of cliff crumbled to the east of the Seven Sisters, the equivalent of seven years of erosion. This August, a beach on the eastern side of the cliffs was closed for several days after parts of the cliff became unstable.

But this took none of the charm away for tourists on the cliff top, who were still able to snap photos with the sea as a backdrop. Friends took turns photographing one another jumping in the air, the shutters pausing only for people to fix their hair. Although this summer in Britain was unusually hot, the wind at the coast was as brisk as ever.

The tourists all had a similar response when asked how they knew about the Seven Sisters. “It’s famous!” was the common refrain.

The appearance there by the South Korean actress, Seo Hyo Rim, came shortly after a visit to the cliffs by the stars of One Night Sleepover Trip, a Korean reality television show. And the Taiwanese singer Jay Chou set one of his music videos there.

In Croatia, one of the main filming locations for the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones” has drawn throngs of tourists, quickly raising fears of “over-tourism” there. Britain’s tourism agencies, who want to capitalize on the growing interest in the Seven Sisters, are also worried about that — and about promoting the place without over-commercializing it.

“It’s quite a trek from London down here and back again,” said Philip Evans, the head of tourism at the local council. He wants to make people’s journey’s worthwhile, he said, but also feels that the area should be “preserved and not ruined by usage.”

Some tourists are already on the hunt for more hidden gems. “I think too many Koreans visit here,” said Hye Jin Park, a 26-year-old elementary schoolteacher. “So later when I travel, I want to visit more local places, not famous.”

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