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
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.
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.”
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.