Fol­low­ing the HEART

YOUNG CHI­NESE ARE SHUNNING THE TRA­DI­TIONAL HOL­I­DAY ROUTES OF MU­SE­UMS AND SHOP­PING MALLS, AND ARE IN­STEAD HUNT­ING FOR AN OUT-OF-THIS WORLD EX­PE­RI­ENCE

The Nation - - INSIGHT - XIN WEN

CU­RIOS­ITY is Bai Yu’s de­fault set­ting. Since 2014, his sense of ad­ven­ture has prompted him to travel to more than 20 coun­tries in just 20 months, and also led him to quit his job to make a solo cy­cle ride through the north­ern part of the Ti­bet au­tonomous re­gion.

The 30-year-old al­ways main­tains a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude when trav­el­ling, so when he was climb­ing an ac­tive vol­cano in In­done­sia, he couldn’t re­sist peer­ing into the crater and sub­ject­ing him­self to the pun­gent odours even though he wasn’t wear­ing a face­mask.

Bai is a renowned blog­ger at Mafengwo, a web­site ded­i­cated to in­trepid solo Chi­nese trav­ellers. His book, “All the Way to the Heart”, at­tracted wide­spread at­ten­tion last year and prompted a num­ber of com­pa­nies to spon­sor his trav­els in sev­eral coun­tries.

“I en­joy the feel­ing of trav­el­ling alone, to­tally undis­turbed,” he said. “I es­pe­cially like hik­ing in deserts where there are no sign­posts – that’s truly ‘liv­ing in the mo­ment’.”

When he started his trav­els, Bai was an ex­cep­tional fig­ure, but now a grow­ing num­ber of young Chi­nese are trav­el­ling solo over­seas in search of ad­ven­ture.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port pub­lished in Au­gust by Jing Travel, an on­line tourism in­dus­try ob­server, the num­ber of Chi­nese who headed over­seas alone had risen by 11 per cent to 65 per cent in the pre­vi­ous 12 months, and the num­ber of mil­len­ni­als un­der­tak­ing solo jour­neys had risen by 8 per cent year-on-year.

Four years ago, Bai was work­ing as a com­puter pro­gram­mer at Per­fect World, a video-game de­vel­oper in Bei­jing, when he first con­sid­ered fol­low­ing his heart and mak­ing solo trips over­seas.

He started with the 20-coun­try odyssey, which was a rev­e­la­tion.

“My life changed com­pletely and, in my mind, a lot of things were meant to be be­fore I even be­gan,” he said.

He ad­mit­ted that while he rev­elled in the ex­cite­ment of that first jour­ney, he ex­pe­ri­enced post-travel blues when he re­turned to China and his usual rou­tine.

“It just hit me that all the mag­nif­i­cent things I ex­pe­ri­enced had dis­ap­peared, and a feel­ing of lone­li­ness emerged,” he said.

Now, he is ac­cus­tomed to the mixed feel­ings that re­sult from his jour­neys. For ex­am­ple, dur­ing a va­ca­tion in Thai­land in Novem­ber 2016, he burst into tears as he watched thou­sands of sky lanterns float away in the skies above Chi­ang Mai be­cause his ela­tion at the sight was tem­pered by a sense of loss and pes­simism.

Fresh fields

Tra­di­tion­ally, Chi­nese tourists trav­elled in large groups or­gan­ised by travel agen­cies, cor­ralled on trips that lacked pri­vacy, flex­i­bil­ity or individuality.

Now, though, a grow­ing num­ber of out­bound Chi­nese are ex­press­ing in­ter­est in va­ca­tions tai­lored to meet their spe­cific re­quire­ments.

The rise in de­mand has re­sulted in younger tourists re­quir­ing the ser­vices of pro­fes­sional guides for their trav­els over­seas, along with ded­i­cated trans­porta­tion and de­tails of lo­cal restau­rants, ac­cord­ing to Xu Zhiyun, head of the cus­tomised trips de­part­ment at Ctrip, a lead­ing on­line travel agency.

“Peo­ple don’t want to travel to visit crowded tourist sites, in­stead they are look­ing for novel ex­pe­ri­ences that will al­low them to see new cul­tures and hear ex­cep­tional sto­ries,” she said, not­ing that the de­mand for cus­tomised trips be­gan to soar at the be­gin­ning of 2015.

A sur­vey con­ducted by J Wal­ter Thomp­son In­tel­li­gence in May showed that in the early part of the year, 30 per cent of Chi­nese trav­ellers took ad­ven­ture-based va­ca­tions that fo­cused on thrill-seek­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, while 45 per cent were in­ter­ested in plan­ning sim­i­lar va­ca­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to Xu, most peo­ple who ex­press an in­ter­est in off­beat hol­i­days are mid­dle class, be­cause their higher in­comes mean they can af­ford to de­sign their own itin­er­ar­ies rather than tread­ing well-worn paths. More­over, the ma­jor­ity are young, with a large num­ber be­long­ing to the post-’80s and ’90s gen­er­a­tions.

“We see op­por­tu­ni­ties in the area of cus­tom-de­signed, ex­clu­sive trips where we can build itin­er­ar­ies to suit spe­cific goals and sched­ules, es­pe­cially for mid­dle-class fam­i­lies in search of high-qual­ity travel ex­pe­ri­ences,” she said.

The mar­ket has grown to a point that pro­vides more op­por­tu­ni­ties for the de­vel­op­ment of ad­ven­ture tourism, with trips that are more im­mer­sive and show­case ex­otic ex­pe­ri­ences, but are safe.

Xiong Yi­dan is a re­cent con­vert to ad­ven­ture tourism. In April, the 26year-old quit her job with an ad­ver­tis­ing agency in Bei­jing and made solo trips to eight coun­tries in three months, in­clud­ing a self-driv­ing hol­i­day in New Zealand.

For Xiong, travel is about en­joy­ing the en­tirety of the trip, rather than just vis­it­ing well-known scenic spots on a rigid tourist agency sched­ule.

For ex­am­ple, when she vis­ited Bali, she spent days ex­plor­ing a moun­tain range and im­mers­ing her­self in na­ture, in­clud­ing hav­ing break­fast in a trans­par­ent bub­ble ho­tel, while her nights were oc­cu­pied by moon­lit walks to see deer in their nat­u­ral habi­tat.

“I rarely set guide­lines for the jour­ney be­fore I depart,” she said. “But once I am on the road, I make a sched­ule to re­duce any po­ten­tial risks.”

Late ar­rival

China was a com­par­a­tive late­comer to cus­tomised trips and the de­vel­op­ment of new forms of tourism.

How­ever, as so­ci­ety pro­gressed in the wake of the re­form and openingup pol­icy, the rapid rise in in­comes and higher liv­ing stan­dards saw more Chi­nese head­ing over­seas and, more re­cently, search­ing for ex­pe­ri­ences that are any­thing but run of the mill.

Ac­cord­ing to CLSA, a cap­i­tal mar­kets and in­vest­ment group in Hong Kong, spend­ing by Chi­nese tourists over­seas is ex­pected to grow from US$115 bil­lion (Bt3.7 tril­lion) in 2017 to $429 bil­lion by 2021.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Ctrip, who pre­ferred not to be named, said ad­ven­ture tourism is such a new phe­nom­e­non that it is dif­fi­cult to as­sess its im­pact and value in mar­ket terms.

That may soon change be­cause po­lar ex­pe­di­tions and African sa­faris have be­come pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions for Chi­nese tourists in re­cent years.

In 2016, Chi­nese peo­ple ac­counted for the sec­ond-largest num­ber of vis­i­tors to the South Pole, af­ter the United States.

They made 3,944 sep­a­rate vis­its at prices rang­ing from 15,000 yuan to more than 100,000 yuan (Bt71,000 to Bt475,000), push­ing Aus­tralia into third place in the process.

Ac­cord­ing to data re­leased by the China Tourism Academy in 2016, Chi­nese busi­ness­peo­ple and tourists made 630,000 trips to Africa in the pre­vi­ous three years. Mean­while, the China Youth Tourism Ser­vice, a re­search in­sti­tute, es­ti­mates that 50,000 Chi­nese have taken va­ca­tions on the con­ti­nent in the past five years.

Xu Xiaolei, chief brand of­fi­cer of China Youth Travel, said Africa’s mix of reg­u­lar sight­see­ing tours and sa­fari va­ca­tions has re­sulted in the con­ti­nent be­com­ing a pre­ferred des­ti­na­tion for Chi­nese tourists, who want to sat­isfy their de­sire for novel ex­pe­ri­ences but pre­fer re­gions and coun­tries where the tourism in­fra­struc­ture is ma­ture.

“We have seen ris­ing de­mand for vis­its to African coun­tries in re­cent years,” he said.

The rise in de­mand is most no­tice­able among young fam­i­lies, who are es­pe­cially at­tracted to cus­tomised sa­faris that of­fer some­thing for ev­ery­one.

While sa­faris and po­lar ex­pe­di­tions are both high on peo­ple’s wish lists, adapt­ing those ex­pe­ri­ences for the Chi­nese mar­ket is par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing in light of the his­tory of un­event­ful group tours that cen­tred on mu­se­ums and shop­ping malls. More­over, prices must re­main com­pet­i­tive to en­sure that reg­u­lar tourists can af­ford the trips.

Am­bi­tion vs con­cern

Bai Yu’s am­bi­tions usu­ally su­per­sede his con­cerns. His three-week solo cy­cle ride through Ti­bet’s Ngari pre­fec­ture meant he spent a lot of time on his own, far from mod­ern ameni­ties.

“As a Chi­nese I feel very priv­i­leged to have vis­ited Ti­bet; it is the place I am most proud of hav­ing been,” he said, with ref­er­ence to the dif­fi­cul­ties for­eign vis­i­tors some­times face to gain ac­cess to a re­gion that is of­ten re­ferred to as the “roof of the world”.

The trip was Bai’s most mem­o­rable jour­ney, and ex­po­sure, ex­haus­tion and long hours in the sad­dle failed to dampen his en­thu­si­asm for travers­ing more peaks in the rar­i­fied at­mos­phere.

“When I look at a globe, I can draw lines be­tween the moun­tains in Ti­bet to mark the un­for­get­table rides I had in the re­gion,” he said. “All the trips I have made have pro­vided a sense of achieve­ment at the time and some­thing to look back on months and years later.”

Above: Bai Yu, a blog­ger for Mafengwo, a pop­u­lar travel web­site, trains to be­come a qual­i­fied diver dur­ing a va­ca­tion in Thai­land in 2015.

Left: A young Chi­nese woman dances in front of a mosque in Shi­raz, Iran.

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