The Chinese Global Study Tour Phenomenon

What is a global study tour, who goes on them, and why are they so vital to the future of UK inbound Tourism?

As the world emerges from the coronavirus crisis, competition to reach the top of the desirable destination list amongst Chinese outbound tourists is going to be fierce. This autumn, the whole world will be fighting for its share of this huge and lucrative market, encouraging the Chinese to return for Golden Week, Chinese New Year, the May National Holiday and, of course, Summer 2021. 

The UK will be part of this race and I am sure we will do well, with our fantastic tourism products and strong China Welcome. However, there is one very important sector where we have very real potential to excel and surpass the competition if we just pay attention and understand the opportunity, and that is the global study tour market.

What is the global study tour market?

A global study tour is a trip abroad made by a school-aged child for the purpose of learning. There are four main categories of global study tour:

  1. The most common type of global study tour involves a group of children visiting a foreign country to learn something (usually the language) with some elements of sightseeing as part of the itinerary.
  2. ‘Camp education’ is common in the States, where students stay in a camp and confine their activities to the camp and its surrounding areas. The content is around education, with most courses offering a theme; sport, art, science, technology are all popular. Many of the summer schools favoured by high-achieving students applying to America’s best universities offer campsite programmes.
  3. A third option is the ‘School immersion’ tour, where the student has a curriculum based experience within a foreign school or university.
  4. The fourth type is aimed at students with a clear ambition to study abroad in the future. This type of study tour aims at enhancing the actual university application and is intended to give the student the best chance of success.

How big is the market and how much is worth?

Like all Chinese travel sectors, it’s big and it’s growing. According to iResearch data in 2018, the number of people who participated in a global study tour was 1.05 million, with an estimated forecast growth rate in the global study tour / camp education market of around 20%. Of course, the coronavirus will interrupt this growth in 2020. The per customer transaction ranges from around £2,300 up to £5,800 and the estimated size of the global study tour and global camp education market in China is around RMB 94.6 billion (£10.5 billion).

Size of Chinese global study tour market
Image : iResearch

Image: iResearch

The market is still relatively immature. The penetration of the study tour industry is reported to be low at around 16%, and distribution is still fragmented, with a large number of tour operators having small shares of the market. For example, New Oriental, one of the leading players in this field, has only a 1-2% market share and most of the companies in the sector are SMEs with revenues below RMB 10 million (iResearch, 2018).

The biggest growth is forecast to be seen in the primary school sector.

The expectation is that although the biggest sector of students undertaking global study tours is currently those at secondary school age, the biggest growth is forecast to be seen in the primary school sector. This reflects the population development of young children since the lifting of the one child policy in China.

Why are global study tours so popular in China?

The Chinese middle classes are looking beyond day to day work and family life, and seeking richer cultural experiences, self-improvement, culture, entertainment and, very importantly, education. Travel is an investment in the future of their children and is often undertaken as a way to educate further, and to check out possible options for future overseas high school and/or university education. Travel broadens the mind, but it also offers the practical purpose of competitive advantage on a university application form. And all this in the context of the child who is still unlikely to have many siblings and certainly no cousins to compete with for the discretionary spend of the doting grandparent. What better way to spend your money than investing in your grandchild’s education?

What is the opportunity for the UK?

The most popular places to travel to for global study tours are United Kingdom, USA, Japan, Australia, France, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Thailand and Switzerland (Tuniu.com, 2019 Summer Global Study Tour Trends Report). According to C Trip, South East Asia is seeing strong and rapid growth over the last two years which Zhao Yao, C Trip’s Study Tour director attributes to low prices and a proliferation of European and American teachers working in South East Asia, offering great value access to language education. South East Asia also offers the benefit of volunteer work, especially on environmental projects.

One of the most popular reasons for embarking on a global study tour is to prepare the child for a future at an overseas university…”

One of the most popular reasons for embarking on a global study tour is to prepare the child for a future at an overseas university and, it remains the case that the USA, the UK and Australia lead the way in welcoming Chinese students at their universities. And this is the real opportunity for the United Kingdom. 

According to The Guardian, in 2019, applications from Chinese students to study at UK universities increased by 30% year on year, and Chinese students are now the largest group of international students in the UK’s universities. But the opportunity is bigger still and, like many things in China, it comes down to politics.

The trade war with the USA and the poor relationship with President Trump are driving Chinese tourists and students away from America. At the same time, China’s relations with Australia are also deteriorating, with arguments over trade tariffs and anger from Beijing over Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the origination and handling of the coronavirus by China. 

Chinese people are hugely influenced by politics and the direction of their President. Any further breakdown in Sino-American and Sino-Australian relations leaves a path open for the United Kingdom to welcome more and more Chinese study groups and students to our shores.

What are the challenges?

So what does the UK need to do to maximise on this opportunity? Our team in Beijing has been speaking to two of the major players in this market and you can read the full interviews here. In summary, the agents are willing to hear from the UK and believe in the destination. They identify the most important priorities are to increase the options for study beyond the pure language courses, to focus on the promotion of our cultural heritage in order to compete with more famous attractions of the USA, to expand our promotion of the regions, universities and cities beyond London, to find ways to compete on price with the States, and to improve communication of product, benefits and tours to the Chinese travel trade, through marketing, sales missions, roadshows and trade communication.  It is also important for our top museums and attractions to create bespoke tours and products which can be offered flexibly as part of the study tours, and that they have Mandarin speaking staff who are able to deliver educational tours to the children on-site. If our attractions can make it easier for the Chinese tour operators to work with them during the summer months, and can deliver a really world-class service to these study tour groups, the demand from the Chinese travel trade is real and valuable. 

It is clear that the United Kingdom has some way to go in terms of product development and communication of our study tour offering, but the opportunity is real and ours for the taking. I hope the pause that has resulted from the Coronavirus crisis will offer our museums and attractions an opportunity to redevelop their offering, communicate with the Chinese specialist operators, and prepare for the inevitable surge in interest for Chinese study tours arriving next summer. It is an opportunity they would be foolish to ignore.