The smart way to travel

Mo­bile In­ter­net and apps have helped to fuel China’s out­bound tourism boom, re­port Li Jing and Yang Feiyue.

China Daily (Canada) - - ANALYSIS -

For an ad­ven­tur­ous trav­eler like Chen Yu, de­cid­ing where to go on hol­i­day used to in­volve hours of scour­ing guide­books for tips on at­trac­tions, de­cent ho­tels and how to get around in a for­eign land.

“Now all I need is my smart­phone,” said the 35-year-old from Beijing.

The rapid ad­vance in tech­nol­ogy in re­cent years means even cheap mo­bile phones are ef­fec­tively palm-top com­put­ers, giv­ing users in­stant ac­cess to real-time in­for­ma­tion on al­most any topic.

Avid trav­el­ers are among the big­gest ben­e­fi­cia­ries of this tech­no­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion — they can now book flights and ho­tels in an in­stant, use dig­i­tal wal­lets to buy sou­venirs, post re­views on the fly, and down­load apps that of­fer de­tailed maps and guides of far-flung places, all in their na­tive lan­guage.

The de­vel­op­ment in mo­bile In­ter­net has un­doubt­edly con­trib­uted to the boom in China’s out­bound tourism, which led to the coun­try be­com­ing the world’s big­gest source of tourists in 2012.

Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial data, Chi­nese tourists were ex­pected to make 120 mil­lion trips abroad in 2015. That would be an in­crease of 16 per­cent year-on-year.

Bank of Amer­ica Mer­rill Lynch has es­ti­mated the num­ber could reach 174 mil­lion by 2019, with tourist spend­ing in­creas­ing to $264 bil­lion.

“Tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances have been the key, as the In­ter­net has re­duced travel costs and made ex­otic des­ti­na­tions more vi­able (for Chi­nese tourists),” said Zhu Zhengyu, an an­a­lyst at Analysys In­ter­na­tional. “It has also led to more Chi­nese trav­el­ing in­de­pen­dently rather than in groups.” And it’s not just tourists who have ben­e­fited; travel agen­cies have also been able to re­duce costs, while tech firms have latched on to the op­por­tu­ni­ties cre­ated by a fast-grow­ing mar­ket.

“The In­ter­net has al­lowed travel agen­cies to close brickand-mor­tar of­fices, cut out the in­ter­me­di­ary and gain eas­ier ac­cess to tar­get cus­tomers,” Zhu said. “Since 2014 many com­pa­nies have also launched smart­phone apps aimed at Chi­nese trav­el­ers, pro­vid­ing ser­vices like car rental and restau­rant re­views, which re­moves the lan­guage bar­rier and fa­cil­i­tates in­de­pen­dent travel.”

In fact, de­spite China com­ing late to the In­ter­net, stud­ies sug­gest the na­tion’s tourists are now the most con­nected in the world. The Chi­nese In­ter­na­tional Travel Mon­i­tor, com­piled by on­line book­ing agency ho­tel. com, said at least half of tourists ar­ranged a hol­i­day through a smart­phone app last year, up 17 per­cent year-on-year.

In De­cem­ber, TripBarom­e­ter, the re­search arm of TripAd­vi­sor, also re­leased its 2016 Travel Trends. The re­port in­cludes a poll of 44,000 global trav­el­ers that found 75 per­cent now see mo­bile de­vices as the most es­sen­tial item for a hol­i­day, over­tak­ing toi­letries. Among the Chi­nese re­spon­dents, the fig­ure was 87 per­cent.

Tech com­pa­nies have been quick to see the po­ten­tial in China’s out­bound tourism mar­ket.

One ex­am­ple is Yi­dao Yongche, an Uber-like app that pro­vides Chi­nese-speak­ing driv­ers to Chi­nese trav­el­ers in 25 cities. Launched as a car rental web­site in 2010, the com­pany shifted fo­cus when mo­bile In­ter­net de­vices started to be­come pop­u­lar in China.

“Most Chi­nese don’t speak English, so they find it dif­fi­cult to com­mu­ni­cate with for­eign driv­ers af­ter they land in an­other coun­try,” said founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Zhou Hang. “We have Chi­nese-speak­ing driv­ers in the US and other places to make it stress free.” China is also ar­guably the most com­pet­i­tive mar­ket for web­sites and apps that al­low tourists to post re­views and swap travel sto­ries.

TripAd­vi­sor is the big­gest player in the West and be­yond. Yet in China, lo­cal ri­vals such as Mafengwo and Qyer are pro­vid­ing stiff com­pe­ti­tion.

Founded in 2010, Mafengwo is a ma­jor tourist in­for­ma­tion­shar­ing web­site and has in­vested heav­ily in its mo­bile In­ter­net ser­vices. The com­pany said its app, launched last year, has been down­loaded 280 mil­lion times and has more than 80 mil­lion ac­tive users.

Shang­hai-based Dian­ping, a busi­ness listings web­site sim­i­lar to Yelp, has ex­tended its reach to 860 cities in more than 200 coun­tries and re­gions over­seas.

Thanks to the tech­nol­ogy, in­dus­try in­sid­ers and an­a­lysts see no slow­down ahead for the growth in out­bound tourism in China. By 2020, the an­nual num­ber of Chi­nese visi­tors to the US is forecast to dou­ble to 4 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the US Na­tional Travel and Tourism Of­fice.

“Un­doubt­edly, 2015 will mark the fourth con­sec­u­tive year of China as the world’s top source for tourists,” said Jiang Yiyi, di­rec­tor of the In­ter­na­tional Tourism De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute.

“The ma­jor rea­son for the growth lies in the pol­icy changes that be­gan in 1997 to al­low Chi­nese to travel abroad, which un­leashed high de­mand for over­seas travel. Since then, in­creased dis­pos­able in­comes, ex­tended na­tional hol­i­days, re­laxed visa re­stric­tions for Chi­nese trav­el­ers and the ris­ing value of the ren­minbi (China’s cur­rency) have all con­trib­uted to the boom,” she said.

Some have com­pared the cur­rent trend to when Ja­panese tourists be­gan go­ing abroad three decades ago. From the mid-1980s through to the 1990s, the num­ber of Ja­panese head­ing over­seas swelled from 4 mil­lion to 16 mil­lion, while at the same time the na­tion’s per capita GDP rose from $10,000 to $35,000.

Jiang agreed there are com­mon fea­tures to th­ese trends, such as a surg­ing econ­omy, ris­ing cur­rency val­u­a­tion and a trade sur­plus. How­ever, un­like Ja­pan, she said China has not of­fi­cially en­cour­aged out­bound travel as a way to bal­ance its trade deficit, al­though it has had an ef­fect.

One big dif­fer­ence is the sheer num­ber of Chi­nese tourists. Ac­cord­ing to the Bank of Amer­ica Mer­rill Lynch re­port, the cur­rent trend “is go­ing to be big­ger and will last longer given China’s pop­u­la­tion of 1.3 bil­lion ver­sus Ja­pan’s pop­u­la­tion of 127 mil­lion”.

Chi­nese trav­el­ers are al­ready seen as the world’s big­gest spenders. In 2014 they spent a to­tal of $164.8 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the China Tourism Acad­emy, a gov­ern­ment re­search in­sti­tute. Al­most 90 per­cent of that was spent shop­ping.

Of course, the slow­down in the Chi­nese econ­omy has led to con­cern in places that have come to rely on Chi­nese tourist spend­ing. Yet Jiang re­mains con­fi­dent. “As tourism is dis­cre­tionary con­sumer spend­ing, it is rel­e­vant, yet not closely linked to, the coun­try’s GDP. But even though there will be a slow­down in GDP growth, you’re still go­ing to see more tourists and you’re still go­ing to see in­creased spend­ing.”

She said her con­fi­dence comes partly from the fact that less than 10 per­cent of Chi­nese main­lan­ders have pass­ports and “only 49 coun­tries and re­gions have so far granted Chi­nese cit­i­zens visa-free or visa-on-ar­rival ac­cess”. It means the mar­ket still has a lot of growth po­ten­tial, which can be un­locked by more flights to var­i­ous des­ti­na­tions and re­laxed visa poli­cies.

Data from OAG, which com­piles air travel in­tel­li­gence, show 298,353 sched­uled do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional flights left Chi­nese air­ports in Novem­ber, with ca­pac­ity on in­ter­na­tional flights up 20 per­cent year-on-year. The fig­ures high­light strong growth in sev­eral smaller mar­kets, as Chi­nese and for­eign car­ri­ers com­pete to serve out­bound Chi­nese trav­el­ers.

Mean­while, the US, Canada and the UK have all in­tro­duced ex­tended mul­ti­ple-en­try visas, “which will definitely fur­ther en­cour­age long-haul travel among Chi­nese tourists”, Jiang added.

Con­tact the writ­ers through li­jing2009@chi­nadaily.com.cn

ROSLAN RAH­MAN / FOR CHINA DAILY

Many Chi­nese tourists travel abroad for hol­i­days. The de­vel­op­ment in mo­bile In­ter­net has con­trib­uted to the boom in out­bound tourism.

LU­CAS JACKSON / REUTERS

Mo­bile In­ter­net de­vel­op­ment con­trib­utes to the boom in China’s out­bound tourism.

LIU ZHE / CHINA DAILY

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