Tak­ing off

Chi­nese glo­be­trot­ters with new habits and hol­i­day pat­terns are re­shap­ing and re­defin­ing the world’s tourism in­dus­try

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By AN­THONY WAR­REN an­thony@chi­nadai­lya­pac.com

Pre­vi­ously the priv­i­lege of the wealthy, China out­bound tourism is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly egal­i­tar­ian, re­shap­ing 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.”

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