Chinese tourists are reluctant to travel again.
But this time, the usual suspects – such as Venice, Paris and Madrid – are not their best.
As China’s reopening gains momentum after three years of Covid-19 restrictions, the country’s travel-hungry citizens have changed significantly, according to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, an independent consultancy based in Germany.
“The Chinese tourists we will welcome this year and in the coming years are very different from those who came before,” said Wolfgang Georg Arlt, founder and CEO of COTRI, at ITB Berlin, the world’s largest travel trade fair.
In China, as elsewhere, years of pandemic lockdowns have prompted a shift away from major tourist attractions to “more nature-oriented, more outdoor tourism,” Arlt said. He highlighted the emergence of trends such as camping and glamping, as well as family-oriented trips.
Perhaps more significantly, many Chinese vacationers are still exploring the treasures of travel opportunities in their own country, he said.
It used to be that if you were an important person in China, you had to travel abroad.
Wolfgang Georg Arlt
founder and CEO of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute
“Within three years of the country’s closure, everyone had to travel domestically – including rich people – which gave a boost to the domestic tourism industry,” Arlt said.
This could mean a significant change in the international travel market, in which Chinese tourists make a significant contribution.
“It used to be that if you were an important person in China, you had to travel internationally. If you traveled domestically, you were either too poor or too stupid to travel abroad,” Arlt added.
“That has changed now,” he said.
In addition, “there has been an improvement in the quality and diversity of the domestic travel offer. So for us, we have to compete not only with other international destinations, but also with the domestic market,” said Arlt, who is also director of the Meaningful Tourism Center, a sustainable travel consultancy based in Hamburg.
Gradual resumption of travel
Chinese tourists did almost 170 million outbound trips in 2019, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.
In the first half of that year alone, their outbound spending exceeded $127.5 billion, studies found from Chinese travel booking site Ctrip.com.
This year, China’s outbound tourism is expected to recover about two-thirds of those 2019 highs, with about 110 million crossing the border from China, according to COTRI.
However, hotel group Accor estimates that around 3 out of 4 Chinese travelers will stay in the country.
“We anticipate that 70% to 80% of passengers will still remain in China. Flight capacity is not yet at the level of 2019,” Karelle Lamouche, Accor’s global chief business officer, told CNBC Travel.
Since the country reopened its borders in early January, a lack of flight capacity has left many would-be travelers stranded at home. In the week of Feb. 6 to Feb. 12, international flights from China recovered just 9% of their 2019 levels, with 63% of those flights operated by Chinese carriers, according to data from Alibaba-owned travel booking website Fliggy.
Meanwhile, many Chinese citizens have been plagued by delays in passport renewals and visa applications, as well as several short-term travel bans from countries such as Japan and South Korea.
“If we don’t have passports, if we don’t have visas,” we can’t be ready for China, said Ralf Ostendorf, director of market management at the travel website. to visit Berlin.
China’s outbound tourism is forecast to recover from two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels in 2023.
Leopatrizi | E+ | Getty Images
Because of these shortcomings, the clear winners are the countries that can meet the needs of Chinese travelers when moving. Thailand, for example, offers visas on arrival to fully vaccinated Chinese tourists who have travel insurance.
“Thailand is becoming a top destination for Chinese customers,” said Simeon Shi, director of strategy and head of corporate development at Fliggy, noting that Thailand welcomed 180,000 Chinese tourists from January to mid-February.
Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said last month that he expected up to 15 million Chinese tourists visiting the country this year, accounting for around half of all arrivals.
Tour groups and tailor-made trips
Still, other traveler preferences can be stickier. Before the pandemic, the majority (55%) of Chinese tourists chose to book their international travel through group tour operators, even as acceptance of independent travel grew.
This trend is unlikely to fade away soon, Shi said — though the types of services they’re looking for have shifted slightly.
When they decide to go abroad, I think group tours will still be their first choice.
Director of Strategy and Head of Corporate Development at Fliggy
“Even today, most Chinese people don’t have a passport,” he said. As the travel market evolves, he said he expects “group tours will still be their first choice,” Shi said.
However, as a result of the pandemic, many tour operators have closed or reduced capacity, creating opportunities for new entrants to emerge with tailored services, he noted.
For example, younger Chinese tourists may prefer to visit a local coffee shop they saw on social media rather than a major attraction, he added.
Arlt agreed that specialized products and special interest tours, including those that differentiate between first-time and repeat visitors, could be a way for businesses to attract the “new” Chinese tourist.
“Understand what you can offer, which segment of the Chinese market is right for it, and then offer it,” Arlt said.
“Don’t be afraid of niche markets in China,” he added. “The niche markets in China are millions of people.”