Chinese globetrotters with new habits and holiday patterns are reshaping and redefining the world’s tourism industry
Some might pigeonhole Sun Kai as the perfect example of a new breed of Chinese tourists. The young lawyer, whose last holiday was to northern Italy, had no interest in going as part of a tour group or spending his time shopping. Instead, he made all his bookings online, and organized a trip to see Venice with his parents.
“I have a lot of friends who do group packages, go on a cruise or something like that,” Sun said. “But I can’t stand being confined with a group of people I don’t know.”
Sun is not alone. Previously the privilege of the rich, China outbound tourism is becoming increasingly egalitarian. Of the more than 1 billion global travelers last year, some 120 million were Chinese.
According to official government figures, this is expected to increase to 234 million by 2020 — making Chinese the single biggest nationality of globetrotters.
Yet they are also forcing operators and destinations to develop new strategies and services to cater to their needs. “Adapt or die” has become an underlying theme for the industry.
This shift from traditional, group-based tourism to extended family and individual tours, sometimes referred to as selfdriven vacations, has been boosted by the increasing influence of the millennials, people born between 1980 and 2000.
Millennials account for 25 percent of China’s population and, according to industry reports, make up nearly 50 percent of all outbound tourists. With their disposable income, they are fueling the tourism boom.
On average, Chinese trips to Asia- Pacific territories have grown by 25.9 percent year-on-year since 2009, and intra-regional visits are set to increase. Of would-be tourists surveyed by duty-free organization Global Blue, 73 percent planned to visit an Asian territory in 2016.
A number of factors have contributed to this growing trend. One is that when flying from Shanghai or Beijing, many capital cities in the region can be reached in less than 5 hours. Shorter trips and lower prices mean longer stays and more options.
Among Asian vacation destinations, South Korea and Thailand are widely hailed as the top two for visitors from the Chinese mainland. Hong Kong comes in third place, followed by Japan and Taiwan.
But with so many travelers staying in the region, other global destinations have lagged behind. Of those surveyed by Global Blue, only 41 percent planned to visit Europe — the traditional home of big brands and fashion.
Though still bringing in more than 50 percent of all global tourists, the continent has taken a knock from recent terror attacks as well as political and financial instability.
For Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission, which promotes Europe as a tourist destination, the malaise is more deep-rooted. Actually finding out what Chinese tourists want will require a more pragmatic approach.
When it comes to selling to China, he noted that it is not the country with the strongest tourism sector that is going to win, but “the country that will adapt most”.
For too long, Chinese have been treated as walking wallets. Many countries have sought to lure them with what they can buy, rather than exploring new business models.
Santander pointed out that Europe has been selling itself to China entirely the wrong way.
“They’re looking for things we didn’t even think about,” he said. A desire to see blue European skies, for instance, is something that tourism sectors may overlook due to their focus on sales and shopping trips.
Similarly, while Chinese tourists’ cultural expectations are on the rise, there has not been enough of an attempt to cater to them in Europe.
He gave an example of Chinese travelers visiting the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Italy, who were not aware that to see the building’s true beauty, they had to look up at its painted ceiling. No one had thought to tell them.
The so-called adapt or die mentality has been better adopted in Asia, where recent relaxation of visa controls for Chinese tourists, as well as the offer of discounts or shopping benefits, have boosted intra-regional travel.
In 2007, the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed a memorandum to develop a single-visa policy for tourists.
For the lawyer Sun, the visa issue is an important one, and the attractiveness of being able to pick up visas on arrival without having to apply beforehand is particularly beneficial.
Yet, he added, “there are still quite a lot of countries where, as a Chinese passport holder, it would be easier to join a tour”, particularly in less-developed countries.
Luzi Matzig, chairman of Asian Trails Group, a Thaibased travel and tourism agency, said that while the move from traditional forms of holiday-making to personalized tourism has grown overall, it has been hard to tap the market.
“As a tour operator it’s difficult to get hold of (individual travelers as customers),” Matzig said. “They use the internet and buy from Ctrip and book the hotel direct,” he added, referring to the major online Chinese travel provider.
Indeed, the fact that many are now bypassing traditional travel agencies has led to massive growth in China’s online travel providers. According to iResearch Consulting Group, second-quarter sales of online travel products amounted to 143 billion yuan ($21.2 billion).
Like many Chinese travelers, Sun used Ctrip to plan his holiday, although he also regularly uses Western apps. He noted that while the appeal of these platforms is normally among the young, they are easy to use and are localized to Chinese tastes, rather than being merely translated from English.
A recent survey by market research firm GfK examined what Chinese tourists are looking for when vacationing. Among them, only 15 percent of interviewees said they traveled simply for the experience or for luxury goods.
More popular motivations were: Trying gourmet food (33 percent), seeking history and culture (37 percent), seeking adventure and excitement (44 percent) and exploring nature (nearly 50 percent).
This shift toward new experiences and personal growth, rather than consumerism, has become more noticed in the market.
“Chinese are demanding real added value,” said Patricia Tartour, the founder of Maison de la Chine, a company that provides expertise for travelers going into or out of China. “Traveling millennials are now seeing tourism as a time of self-discovery.”
Chinese travelers, Tartour said, are expecting more than just leisure, with many seeking to learn about other cultures.
This is a boon for less-developed countries that are rich in culture and can use it to rake in tourist dollars. Vietnam and Cambodia, for instance, have both been major players in the regional tourism market.
Matzig of Asian Trails said that rather than emulating a Western tourist ideal, Chinese holidaymakers have forged a new path for themselves.
“You see that many of the Westerners want beach, beach, beach,” he said. “(The Chinese) do also go to the beach, but then they go on a quick island trip for three or four hours… they want to shop, they want to sightsee.”
Disagreeing with the perception that Chinese tourists are only interested in shopping, he explained how around 80 percent of people in a temple he visited recently in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, were Chinese.
“They’re very active,” he said. “They want to see a lot, do a lot, see shows … They really love good shows.”
Arthur de Haast, of property advisory firm JLL, said Chinese tourists’ total global spending has reached a record level — up 53 percent year-onyear. In 2015 alone, Chinese tourists spent an estimated $229 billion in foreign retail.
De Haast, the chairman of JLL’s global capital markets board and hotels and hospitality group, was speaking at the Global Tourism Economy Forum in Macao, which ran from Oct 15 to 16.
Among the biggest leap was in Japan, where a devalued yen and 3.78 million Chinese visas led to a shopping spree in 2015. Called bakugai, meaning “explosive shopping” by the Japanese, Chinese purchases in Japan rose by more than 50 percent from the previous year.
With such far- reaching changes taking place in the market, the question now is how traditional destinations and travel suppliers are going to face this new tourism norm.
“Our role is not to forecast the future but to change it,” explained Santander of the European Travel Commission. “We can’t impose a product on the Chinese. We must ask them what they want.”