Chinese tourists are eager to travel again.
But this time around, the usual suspects – Venice, Paris and Madrid, for example – aren’t their top picks.
As China’s reopening gains momentum after three years of Covid-19 restrictions, the country’s travel-hungry citizens are emerging much changed, according to the Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute, an independent consultancy firm based in Germany.
“The Chinese tourists we will welcome this year and in the years to come are very different from those who have come before us,” said Wolfgang Georg Arlt, founder and managing director of COTRI, during the ITB Berlin, the largest exhibition tourism in the world.
In China as elsewhere, years of pandemic-induced shutdowns have triggered a shift in major tourist attractions toward “more nature-based and more outdoors-oriented tourism,” Arlt said. He pointed to emerging trends like camping and glamping, as well as family-oriented travel.
Perhaps more importantly, many Chinese vacationers are still exploring the treasure trove of travel opportunities in their own country, he said.
Previously, if you were an important person in China, you had to travel overseas.
Wolfgang Georg Arlt
founder and CEO of the Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute
“During the three years of the country’s lockdown, everyone had to travel within the country – including the wealthy – which boosted the domestic tourism industry,” Arlt said.
This could mark a significant shift in the international travel market, to which Chinese tourists are outsized contributors.
“Before, if you were an important person in China, you had to travel overseas. If you traveled within the country, you were either too poor or too stupid to travel overseas,” he said. added Arlt.
“That has changed now,” he said.
Additionally, “there has been an improvement in the quality and variety of domestic travel offers. So for us, we have to compete not only with other international destinations, we have to compete with the domestic market as well,” said Arlt, who is also director of the Meaningful Tourism Center, a Hamburg-based sustainable travel consultancy.
Gradual resumption of travel
Chinese tourists made near 170 million outbound travel in 2019, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.
In the first half of this year alone, their outbound travel spending topped $127.5 billion, a study from the Chinese travel booking site Ctrip.com found.
This year, Chinese outbound travel is expected to recover about two-thirds of those 2019 highs, with about 110 million border crossings from China, according to COTRI.
However, the Accor hotel group estimates that about three out of four Chinese travelers will stay in the country.
“We expect 70% to 80% of travelers will still stay in China. Flight capacity is not yet at 2019 levels,” Karelle Lamouche, Accor’s global chief commercial officer, told CNBC Travel.
Since the country reopened its borders in early January, the lack of flight capacity has left many would-be travelers stranded at home. During the week of Feb. 6-12, international flights from China recovered just 9% of their 2019 levels, with 63% of those flights operated by Chinese carriers, according to data from the site. Fliggy travel booking owned by Alibaba.
Meanwhile, many Chinese citizens have been beleaguered by delays in passport renewals and visa applications, as well as short-term travel bans from countries like Japan and South Korea.
“If we don’t have the passports, if we don’t have the visas,” we can’t be ready for China, said Ralf Ostendorf, director of market management at the tourism site. visitBerlin.
Chinese outbound travel is expected to recover to around two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels in 2023.
Leopatrizi | E+ | Getty Images
Because of these shortcomings, countries that can meet the changing needs of Chinese travelers have clearly come out on top. Thailand, for example, offers visas on arrival to fully vaccinated Chinese tourists who have travel insurance.
“Thailand is becoming the top destination for Chinese customers,” said Simeon Shi, chief strategy officer and head of business development at Fliggy, noting that Thailand welcomed 180,000 Chinese tourists from January to mid-February.
The country’s deputy prime minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, said last month that he expects 15 million Chinese tourists to visit the country this year – about half of all inbound arrivals.
Tour groups and tailor-made trips
Yet other traveler preferences may be stickier. Prior to the pandemic, the majority (55%) of Chinese tourists chose to book their overseas travel through group tour operators, even though acceptance of independent travel has increased.
This trend is unlikely to go away soon, Shi says, even though the types of services they seek have changed slightly.
When they choose to go abroad, I think group tours will remain their first choice.
Director of Strategy and Head of Business Development at Fliggy
“Even nowadays, most Chinese people don’t have passports,” he said. As the travel market evolves, he said he expects “group travel will remain their first choice,” Shi said.
However, due to the pandemic, many tour operators have closed or reduced capacity, creating opportunities for new entrants to emerge with tailored services, he noted.
Young Chinese tourists, for example, may prefer to visit a local cafe they saw on social media rather than major attractions, he added.
Arlt agreed that niche products and special interest tours, including those that differentiate first-time and repeat visitors, could be the way for companies to attract the “new” Chinese tourist.
“Understand what you have to offer, which segment of the Chinese market is right for it, and then offer it,” Arlt said.
“Don’t be afraid of niche markets in China,” he added. “Niche markets in China represent millions of people.”