China travel market update 20 November ‘20

China’s domestic travel market continues to make a strong post-pandemic recovery. China’s three largest carriers each launched 10 new domestic routes in October while China’s largest airline, China Southern, returned to profit in Quarter 3. Meanwhile key hotel markets including Sanya, Shenzhen, Chengdu and Xi’an have recently recorded occupancy levels of more than 70%.  And Alibaba’s online travel platform Fliggy reported more than double last year’s sales of domestic hotel nights during China’s annual online shopping bonanza Singles Day.

Intra-China passenger flights stood at 98% last year’s volumes in September in the build-up to Golden Week, the first in the time of Covid-19. And while countries across Europe were entering second lockdowns in early October, photos of busy tourist spots and transport hubs showed the Middle Kingdom rediscovering its wanderlust. The chairman and co-founder of online travel mega-agency Trip.com, Liang Jianzhang, forecast that China’s domestic tourism market would be fully recovered by the end of 2020.

China-Southeast Asia travel bubbles opening

At least 500 million Chinese went on holiday during Golden Week. In fact China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism puts the number of travellers as high as 637 million. And Chinese online travel agency Qunar.com reported an increase of around +20% in the average hotel booking price compared to last year.

Attesting to China’s regained consumer confidence, a USD500 million Legoland theme park is planned for Shanghai. The first Chinese holidaymakers in 7 months arrived in Thailand in October, and a Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble is due for launch on 22 November.

A return to explosive shopping?

The Pfizer/BioNTech announcement that their Covid-19 vaccination candidate proved 90% effective in global trials has received widespread coverage in China. This follows positive news for the nation’s own candidate vaccines. And with Covid-19 largely under control at home, the return of one coronavirus positive tourist from Mongolia in recent days has been headline news.

Chinese tourists are not just returning to travelling – they’re spending too. The Middle Kingdom’s – and perhaps the world’s – biggest annual shopping day, Singles Day, on 11 November broke all spending records. China’s online retail giant Alibaba reported record sales of 583,000 purchases every second with 1.9 billion sales in total.

Although the Chinese economy took a significant dip during the heights of the pandemic in Quarter 1, it picked up speed in Quarters 2 and 3. Quarter 3 saw growth of +4.9% year/year, and retail sales grew by +3.3% in September. China is the first major economy to resume growth at pre-pandemic levels and is expected to be the only G20 economy to grow this year.

Chinese students and the UK education market: an interview with Tony Evans, Co-Founder of Experio Life and Bristol International College

Tony, tell us about yourself; what’s your experience in education and what do you do?

After graduating in Modern European Studies in 1984 and travelling extensively throughout Europe for a year, I embarked on a career in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) which spanned 6 years and took me to Germany, Italy and France. I then moved into Operations Management (staff recruitment, programming and troubleshooting) before taking on roles in Sales and Marketing with a number of leading organizations in the industry. Since September 1995 I have been involved in the creation and management of 4 start-up companies in the UK, France and Germany. In 2001, I set up Experio Life Ltd., a consultancy business specializing in educational travel for the youth market and in 2019 I co-founded Bristol International College, a University of London-recognised teaching centre located in the heart of Bristol.

What proportion of Chinese students attend your independent and public schools? And how has the market changed over the last few years?

In 2019, 50% of our international students were from China compared to less than 10% in 2016. While it’s true that we saw growth in many existing and several new markets over that period, none was so strong as that from China.

When did you start first realise that there might be an opportunity to attract Chinese students to independent schools and summer schools in the UK?

Since the early 2000s, we have had a good number of Hong Kong students every year but in spite of the best efforts of those Hng Kong-based agents to penetrate the mainland Chinese market, we didn’t welcome our first Chinese students until 2014.

How did you approach the market?

In the first instance, we were approached by the Bristol-China Partnership (now known as the Bristol & West of England China Bureau) to host a small group of friends and relatives of one of their Chinese staff members who was also a Post Graduate student at the University of Bristol. This turned out to be a very positive experience for all concerned and was repeated the following summer with a much larger group. At that point I realised the growth potential for student recruitment from China.

How did you find someone to work with in China?

We received another local contact from the Bristol-China Partnership, a Chinese lady with a background in Finance but with great entrepreneurial spirit and skills who had recently moved to Bristol to accompany her son, who had taken up a place in Clifton College Prep School. We immediately agreed to work together on the recruitment of Chinese students for our summer schools and state school integration programmes and I’m delighted to say that we are still working together and had great success up until Covid-19 struck.

At around the same time in 2015, we were talking to a student marketing company about how best to access the Chinese market from an in-country perspective and they recommended that we engage a full-time bilingual Sales Representative who we trained in the UK and then deployed in China to contact and pre-select educational travel agents on our behalf.

You visited China for 30 days/year for several years to build contacts; how did you plan your visits and decide who to meet?

Yes, that’s correct…so from 2016 – 2019 I visited China two or three times per year in order to meet and consolidate existing relationships and to forge new ones with agents who had been pre-selected by our local representative (ie vetted to meet certain criteria that qualified them as having good potential to deliver students to our portfolio of programmes). Our local rep was responsible for the itinerary for each trip including accommodation, ground transportation and flights but in some cases these costs were borne by the agents that we were meeting since I would be required to visit schools and universities together with the agent and often give a presentation to Senior Management Teams, English teachers, students, parents etc.

What are your general experiences of working in China? What were your biggest challenges?

I must say that despite the extensive travel involved and the somewhat repetitive nature of visiting schools and giving presentations, I have really enjoyed all my trips to China and I have been made to feel extremely welcome wherever I have been. And I have eaten some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had anywhere. On the few occasions that I have travelled alone in China, I found the language barrier the biggest challenge…especially with taxi drivers!

Can you tell us about guanxi and how it has affected how you work with the Chinese?

Guanxi is a Chinese term meaning “networks” or “connections” that open doors for new business and facilitate deals. Understanding this concept and how to implement it within the context of student recruitment has been fundamental to our success in developing China as a market. Having a basic understanding of Chinese culture and demonstrating this understanding and your respect for the ways in which things are done through the way you behave yourself in everyday situations, and in the way you do business, is key to creating the guanxi from which successful and long-lasting business relationships and partnerships develop.

What are the most important factors in attracting Chinese students in the age of Covid-19?

The most important factors are showing empathy and understanding for the concerns that students, parents and agents have surrounding safety and security issues, and then being able to address those concerns with tangible solutions. Students want to study abroad and many would be prepared to take the small risk involved currently but parents are the ultimate decision makers since they are financing it and they won’t take any risks where their children are concerned. Consequently, we have to satisfy the parents that not only will we provide an excellent educational experience for their children but that we can also guarantee their safety and well-being. We need the external factors such as transportation and visa processing to be available too.

How to do business in China: the importance of guanxi

If you’ve ever made a business trip to China, you’ll have heard about guanxi. If you’re new to China and considering doing business there, you need to know about guanxi. So what is this key element of building relationships with Chinese business partners? What is the importance of guanxi?

Who you know is more important than what you know

It isn’t easy to directly translate guanxi into English but its approximate meaning is ‘social connections’ or ‘personal relationships’. Essentially it refers to the interpersonal networks of people we each build to help us succeed in our careers. And guanxi is key to being successful in business in China.

For much of Chinese history, guanxi has been the glue that has held society together. Traditional Chinese society was mostly rural and built around family and social connections, which are also emphasised in Confucianism. Essentially, it’s natural to do business with people you know. We might even characterise guanxi as ‘Who you know is more important than what you know’.

So how should you approach doing business in China, taking guanxi into account?  And can you create your own guanxi?

Creating your own guanxi

Is it possible for a non-Chinese person to create their own guanxi? Tony Evans did. Tony is Co-Founder of Bristol International College and Experio Life Ltd, a consultancy business specialising in educational travel for the youth market. With more than 30 years’ experience in education and a continent-spanning career, Tony is used to cross-border working and international collaboration. So he wasn’t phased by getting involved with the Chinese market. We spoke to Tony to hear more about his experiences.

In 2015 Tony identified untapped Chinese demand for international education. Working with a Chinese business partner in the UK, Tony selected and appointed a bilingual in-country representative. The local rep identified suitable schools and agents, arranged local introductions, and planned itineraries and every aspect of travel. Tony visited China two or three times every year, spending about 30 days annually travelling vast distances and holding many meetings in China to build relationships and establish that all-important guanxi.

The result? In 2019, 50% of Tony’s summer school students were from China – an increase from just 10% in 2016.

How to do business in China

So it is possible to create your own connections, or guanxi. But it’s a lot of work and commitment, and you need inside help.

  1. Have a trusted local partner

Work with a local partner to identify the right people to meet. The right person in China knows your market and industry, and will have the necessary connections to match you with promising business contacts.

  • Get introductions

Make sure you’re not approaching potential business partners ‘cold’. A written introduction from a trusted Chinese contact is the minimum; an inperson introduction is better.

  • Work with a local translator who is not just bilingual but bicultural

Use a translator who understands your industry jargon and can interpret cultural differences for you. Understanding cultural and linguistic nuance is vital to achieving results.

Many cross-cultural challenges in business

And tackling guanxi is just one cross-cultural challenge among many. Don’t forget:

  • Seniority is important. It’s vital that senior associates make contacts and nurture relationships. Don’t ever send someone who the Chinese might perceive as junior to a meeting
  • The Chinese don’t like to say no. Apparent agreement is often not what it seems
  • Meeting etiquette is important. What Westerners perceive as ‘small talk’ is crucial relationship-building

We can help you establish great working relationships with business partners in China. We are experts in promoting tourism brands in the Chinese market and have long-term relationships with the important Chinese media, Key Opinion Leaders (influencers) and travel trade. The travel specialists in our Beijing office have existing guanxi with many of your potential business partners – and can visit them in person to promote your product ready for when China’s 100 million plus outbound tourists start booking overseas travel again.

Contact us now for a no obligation chat about the possibilities of the Chinese outbound travel market and how we can help guanxi work for you.

Travelling to be seen: the rise of daka tourism in China

When the Chinese first began to travel overseas, the cliché was that they loved to take short trips covering as many destinations and countries as possible. And while this contained some truth in the early days, Chinese travel patterns have evolved towards longer, more in-depth holidays. Getting under the skin of a destination and enjoying authentic local experiences has fast moved to the top of the Chinese tourist’s wishlist.

Yet there are as many different travel styles as there are Chinese tourists – millions – and the latest millennial trend is daka tourism. Daka tourism – essentially to be seen to have been somewhere, or preferably many places – is enjoying its time in the sun as the latest trend driving domestic travel in China.

In the Middle Kingdom, there is kudos to be seen to have visited significant and fashionable places, especially temporary ones. And how best to show you have visited somewhere? Through sharing digital video evidence on Douyin. Douyin is the original, censored version of Tik Tok with 230 million monthly users. Where Tik Tok rules for short video content in the USA and Europe, its censored parent Douyin rules in China. At the heart of Chinese digital trends, it’s through Douyin that daka culture has really taken off.

“Punching in”

The term daka originally refers to “punching in”, the act of using a card to punch in and out of work. In its latest form daka tells of marking one’s visit to a hot destination by posting on social media.

“Make every second count” is Douyin’s slogan, and this is reflected in the proliferation of short destination videos in the app.

Unexpected consequences of daka include the recent surge in travellers to Zhanjiang, an otherwise unremarkable city in Guangdong province. Location of the hit tv show Bad Kids, Zhanjiang is experiencing an unexpected boom in visitors to locations featured in the drama, including a swimming pool which has achieved the dizzying heights of 2,000 visitors daily. And in the city of Chongqing, the mock-traditional style of architecture of a stilt-house complex in Honyadong became the second-most popular attraction in China after the Forbidden City thanks to a surge in Douyin coverage.

Selfies in space

Daka culture has its roots, of course, in selfies. Selfies have gradually infiltrated our most important moments over the last few years, making experiences more real and memorable by the act of digitally memorialising them. We usually think of selfies as a recent digital trend, but their history actually goes back centuries. The Library of Congress in the USA holds a picture Robert Cornelius took of himself in 1839, believed to be the world’s first photographic selfie. Second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, took the first space selfie in 1966, and what are Rembrandt’s self-portraits than a selfie by slower means? The 1990s saw selfies take grip in Japan as part of kawaii [cute] culture. In 2001 Instagram introduced auto filters for beautifying faces. And so in 2020 we arrive at daka culture.

Ephemeral beauty

Daka culture is related to, but not the same as, the search for Instagrammable backgrounds. While London’s Sketch hopes to use its soft pink benches to attract Instagrammers for years to come, a daka-friendly venue is more likely to be a pop-up, temporary in its location and especially on-trend in its looks.

Pre-pandemic China saw daku zu – daka tribes – touring cities to “punch as many destination cards as possible”. Travel agents started offering daka tours, and social media-friendly installations are even taking off in the art world. Savvy destinations and attractions ‘build in’ striking views and backgrounds to their offering, and plan PR-worthy temporary installations. Tourism brands work with Key Opinion Leaders and influencers on Douyin to encourage them to visit to put them on the daka map.

It will be fascinating to see how long daka tourism endures – especially if it turns out to be as fleeting as the visits it inspires.

Chinese Tourism Leaders’ (Virtual) Forum 2020

On 21 October, we were delighted to share insight into the Chinese travel market with senior representatives from the UK’s leading destination organisations, transport operators, tour operators and visitor attractions at the fourth annual Chinese Tourism Leaders’ event. Hosted by China Travel Outbound and Capela China, settling around Zoom wasn’t quite the same as enjoying Peking Duck in Chinatown but it was a fantastic success nevertheless.

Vivienne Song, China Director for China Travel Outbound, and Helena Beard, Managing Director in the UK, shared the latest information on the Chinese travel market. We heard that life in China is back to normal with the only Covid-19 changes relating to mask-wearing and Track and Trace requirements. China’s domestic travel market has been the first in the world to recover, with flight bookings down only -2% in August, and 75% of China’s travel agents back at work. Post-Covid-19 revenge travel took hold for Golden Week with 637 million trips being made, and strengthening trends include small tailormade tours, self-drive, rail, and luxury and personalised service. A lust for open spaces, remote islands, and direct contact with local cultures will be an emerging trend once the market returns to our shores.

We were delighted to be joined by Richard Nicholls, Head of Research and Forecasting for VisitBritain, who talked us through recent changes to VisitBritain China stats. For several years now there have been significant anomalies between VisitBritain figures for Chinese inbound tourists to the UK, and data from other sources such as number of visas issued. This issue has been discussed at length by the Chinese Tourism Leaders’ group in the past so the audience was very happy to hear that this has now been resolved.  The updated stats show a very substantial increase in Chinese inbound tourist visits to the UK with the revised total more than doubling to 860,000 in 2018. 2019 saw 883,000 Chinese inbound visits to the UK. In fact China’s £1.7bn spend in 2019 makes it the second largest inbound market by expenditure.

The timing for the return of the market was also discussed, with expectation that the first significant influx of Chinese tourists will be seen in Summer 2021. More accurate predications will be possible following Chinese New Year in February 21 when we will see how and where the Chinese government lifts restrictions on international travel. Helena Beard highlighted to the audience that the more immediate opportunity lies with international students and announced that a new student-focused product would be launched by the agency next month to service this market.

We also heard from Clive Doble of Value Retail, Bicester Village, who talked about the abolition of tax-free shopping for international visitors to the UK from 1st January ’21. This policy would make it about 20% more expensive for Chinese travellers to visit the UK and shop here. It would have a detrimental impact on international visitor figures and come as a huge blow to the inbound tourism sector which is already one of the sectors impacted most severely by COVID-19.  Joss Croft, CEO of UKinbound, reassured the forum that intense lobbying continues to try to reverse this decision.

The Chinese Tourism Leaders’ group was created by specialist agencies China Travel Outbound and Capela China to share insights and best practice between the destinations, visitor attractions, transport companies and tourism brands who are at the forefront of Chinese inbound tourism to the UK.

Post-pandemic revenge travel takes to the skies in China’s Golden Week

Thousands of years ago China’s emperors worshipped the moon for bountiful harvests, and on 1 October Chinese people believe that the moon is at its very brightest and fullest. China’s landscapes are dotted with lanterns to light the way to good luck, and across the nation people give mooncakes, rich pastries filled with sweet-bean or lotus-seed paste, as gifts in the week-long Mid-Autumn Festival.

China’s Mid-Autumn Festival this year coincides with National Day on 1 October, creating an eight day Golden Week holiday which is widely seen as a test for China’s post-pandemic bounceback. In mid-September, online travel booking website Qunar was forecasting that the total number of domestic flights over the holiday would surpass 15 million, a ten per cent increase on 2019. Lower ticket prices, promotions and curbs on international travel are all contributing to this surge in domestic traffic.

Chinese domestic tourism reaching last year’s levels?

Mid-September had already seen the first sales figures showing tourism growth year-on-year. China’s hotel occupancy rates in the week to 12th September stood at +9% against last year; this marked the first year-on-year increase since the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile Alibaba-backed online travel platform Fliggy announced that hotel and airline bookings made in the week to 15th September outsold those made last year.

There is plenty of confidence in the domestic market. China’s largest mainland hotel operator  Huazhu has unveiled plans to open more than 1,600 new hotels this year and has just raised HK$6.07 billion (USD783 million) with a second listing in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Hauzhu is aiming for a total of 10,000 hotels in China by 2023. And Hampton by Hilton has just signed its 500th property in China.

The Red Dragon’s economic recovery

It’s increasingly clear that there’s plenty of pent-up demand in China. Restaurants, hotels and airports are busy again. Luxury spend is bouncing back. Expenditure from China’s middle income segment is not far behind, with compact cars following luxury models in seeing sales rise to near last year’s levels.

In fact, The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development’s recent reforecast for China predicts that the country will experience growth of +1.7% this year. This would make it the only member of the G20 to see positive economic output in 2020. Prompt initial action against Covid-19 positioned China for a quicker recovery than many nations, and the OECD’s forecast of growth of +8% next year suggests a speeding uptick in spending.

Revenge spending and revenge travel

The recent surge in household expenditure has been characterised as “revenge spending” as Chinese people celebrate surviving the fear and death of the pandemic. Golden Week is the first real opportunity for “revenge travel” and all indications point to a population increasingly comfortable with ‘the new normal’ and willing to travel. Complaints on online forums about sold-out hotels and tourist attractions abound, and traffic analysis indicates plenty of China’s traditional Golden Week jams on major routes.

Winners of the Golden Week visitor numbers lottery so far include Sanya on China’s holiday island Hainan, with reported waits for check-in up to 40 minutes in recent days. Even in August, Sanya Phoenix International airport in Hainan was reporting arrivals up +4% year-on-year. Macau relaxed its entry requirements for mainland tourists on 23 September, just in time for Golden Week. On the mainland, weekend hotel availability is limited in many cities.

Travel in the age of coronavirus

To help meet this increasing demand, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism allowed tourist attractions and scenic sites to increase their capacity to 75% for Golden Week. In the age of coronavirus, this is of course combined with pre-booking, temperature checks, mask-wearing and social distancing protocols, helping both visitors and attractions to find new levels of reassurance of safety in travel.

The Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute compares the post-pandemic recovery to that which took place after the 2008 Wenchan earthquake in Sichuan. The Wenchan earthquake survivors showed similar inclinations towards revenge travel as they wanted experiences to bring them joy post-trauma. Elements which will help in the era of coronavirus include not just implementing anti-Covid 19 measures but effectively communicating them too.

China’s travel future

Traditionally one of the busiest times to travel in China, 782 million holidays were taken over Golden Week last year, and more than 7 million people travelled abroad. While 2020 levels may not quite reach these dizzying heights, China’s travel sector is unquestionably picking up. More than 90% of attractions are open, and so are over 75% of travel agents. While some of this is discount-driven, Chinese travellers’ increasing comfort with trip-taking bodes well for the future.

Professor Dr Wolfgang George Arlt of the Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute is confident that mainland China will remain the no 1 international tourism source market for many years to come. Economic and demographic developments, a growing middle class, more openness and increased ease of travel, and the easing or removal of visa restrictions will all contribute.

As Chinese tourists’ previously constrained holiday ideas take flight in the Middle Kingdom, interest in overseas destinations is rising too. While quarantine remains in force for international arrivals (including returning Chinese nationals), many tourism brands are maintaining awareness in the market through smart digital initiatives.

We can help maintain and increase your visibility to China’s travellers ready for the restart of international travel. Don’t let your competitors get ahead of you when the Chinese start booking overseas travel again. Contact us for a no obligation chat now.

China travel market update 21 September ’20

China’s domestic travel market is recovering strongly so far. Travel data analysts Forward Keys report that domestic arrivals reached 86% of 2019’s level in the second week of August, while domestic flight bookings hit 98%, with most bookings for travel in the same month.

Over 90% of China’s hotels and attractions are open. The Greater China hotel market is picking up at speed with destinations including Shanghai and Sanya, on popular tropical holiday island Hainan, showing a significant rebound in occupancy levels. And in further Chinese holiday island news, Macao has launched a promotional campaign to attract more mainland Chinese visitors to spur the recovery of the local economy.

China’s theme parks are booming [paywall] as the global restrictions on travel encourage the population to look for holiday experiences closer to home. China has around 160 large-scale theme parks ranging from international brands like Shanghai Disneyland to home-grown offerings such as Wuhan’s Happy Valley and Kunming’s Colourful Yunnan Paradise, with many more in development.

Hainan Airlines is operating charter flights from Chongqing to Manchester to bring new and returning Chinese students to the UK for the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year.

Meanwhile China’s August retail sales recorded an increase of +5% year-on-year, the first growth since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. And China’s luxury market is thriving, partly driven by displacement of sales which would have taken place on overseas trips. Tiffany & Co reports retail sales up by +90% year-on-year in China in April and May. And new food experiences remain popular. New York’s lively burger bar brand Shake Shack opened its first outlet in Beijing in August and was met by queues around the block, despite pouring rain.

Quarantine rules remain in force for international arrivals, although it is expected that travel corridors are being negotiated with other Asian countries in preparation for Golden Week.

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.

Self-drive tours gain in popularity in China

The recovery of the domestic tourism industry is accelerating in China. According to The Beijing News, more than 22 provinces and cities across China, including Beijing and Shanghai, have now resumed local tourism operations with travel agencies starting to organize trips to neighboring cities as the novel coronavirus outbreak subsides.

This year, China’s May Day holiday has been extended to five consecutive days over a long weekend, and is expected to deliver the next big spike in tourism in China. China’s biggest online travel agent, CTrip, has reported that the number of trips booked for the May holiday has increased by 353% since April, and some 3,8600 scenic sites have now opened ticket reservations on CTrip. This number is expected to exceed 4000 for the May holiday. These are outdoor attractions such as mountain walks, national parks and, of course, the Great Wall. Indoor attractions and museums such as the Forbidden City, will remain closed.

Image: CGTN

Although it is widely reported that the coronavirus outbreak has been largely brought under control in China, it is clear that tourists are still concerned about transmission and further outbreaks. This is affecting their transport decisions, and they are taking to the roads, intending to drive to their chosen attractions. CTrip reports that, so far, the number of car rental bookings has reached 70 percent of the same period last year which is a strong performance given the tourism downturn. 

Image: Ctrip

During the Qingming holiday in April this year, the travel review platform, Mafengwo, shared data showing that the first bookings leading the recovery of the domestic market were in short-distance self drive and day trips. In the week before the Qingming holiday, searches for the keywords “nearby self-drive tour” in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou increased by 85.7%, 51.2% and 132.8% respectively. The China Tourism Academy reported that, during the Qingming holiday, tourists to scenic spots mainly came from within the same province, that urban one-day tours and suburban tours are recovering, and the proportion of self-drive tours increased, with most tourists travelling together as a family.

China Tourism Academy data: 41% of tourists will choose self-drive as mode of transport when COVID-19 ends. (Image: CGTN)

Self Drive was increasing even before Coronavirus

According to the China Tourism Academy, the Chinese made 580 million self-drive trips across domestic destinations in 2018, which represented a year-on-year increase of 35.6%. Around 70% of domestic road trips in 2018 were two to three day excursions with a driving distance of no more than 200 kilometres. However, the number of long-distance and outbound self-drive trips also grew in 2018.

In 2019, Chelun and Tuniu launched a report about self-drive travel, which showed that, in the first half of 2019, 82.6% of car owners enjoyed a self-drive trip, with nearly 80% of them choosing a short road trip and nearly 60% opting for a long-distance road trip. Industry experts believe that with the strong support of national policies and the increasing view that self drive is more environmentally friendly than air travel, self-drive will be more and more popular.

Are self-drive tourists valuable?

This year, due to the effect of the coronavirus, naturally more people will choose self-drive to avoid gathering on planes, trains and coaches. Self drive offers easier access to the kinds of attractions which are likely to be the most popular, such as national parks, natural scenic spots and campsites, allowing people to get close to nature and away from crowds. As people will not be travelling in guided groups, there will be a demand for more public tourism services, such as visitor information, signs, guidance and advice. Self-drive tourists are also considered to have a very strong purchasing power which can be highly beneficial to local economies and artisan industries, having a more leisurely approach to shopping for goods and souvenirs and prioritizing local shops and craft souvenir stores over shopping malls. 

What does this mean for international travel?

As with all travel trends which start domestically in China, the passion of self-drive in domestic tourism has also extended to outbound tourism.

According to a 2018 report by Zuzuche, China’s outbound self-drive tourists reached 9.14 million, a 65-fold increase over six years from 2013 to 2018. The report also showed that over the past three years, 63% of self-drive tourists were 28 – 38 years old, but the number of tourists aged 40 to 49, and over 50 years old also displayed growth, showing that self-drive was also growing in popularity across varied age ranges.  

What is the attraction of self drive for the outbound Chinese tourist?

As with many areas of travel and tourism, the popularity of self-drive comes down to cost and convenience. Public transport in some foreign countries is relatively expensive and complicated to book. Private car bookings are popular, but, compared to taxis and chauffeured vehicles, the cost of self-drive car rental is clearly more economical. For the top 10 self-drive destinations for Chinese tourists in 2019, the average car rental cost was worked out to be only about RMB 100 per person per day (Zuzuche, 2019). This low cost reflects the fact that Chinese tourists tend to travel in small groups, with four or five people in the car, making this a very cheap alternative to public transport.

As the Chinese market matures, the desire for more experiential holidays and to travel beyond the beaten track grows. Self-drive offers a convenient way to explore a country, visiting its more remote, non-urban sites and the national parks, scenic and coastal regions with the fresh air and natural beauty yearned for by the Chinese. Self-drive requires a certain level of confidence which was perhaps less prevalent in previous generations of Chinese tourists. Now China’s millennials are so used to travel, they are well educated (often abroad), and speak second languages. Hiring and driving a car is less of a challenge than it would have been for their parents. 

How should the car rental industry prepare for Chinese tourists?

Comfort, safety and reliability will also be important in this market. Chinese tourists are reluctant to ask a lot of questions and are generally risk-averse when it comes to booking travel, preferring to book via the travel trade and well-known brands. International car hire brands, such as Hertz and Avis, have an opportunity to do very well in this market, but there are also great opportunities for car rental brokers or smaller specialist brands (such as self-drive minivans serving more remote places like the Scottish Highlands, or all weather vehicles in ski or mountain regions) to promote their products in China to the FIT market. This can be done via social media, PR or, very effectively, through the existing distribution structure of the Chinese travel trade and China-specialist DMCs.

It will be very important that the booking and collection processes are simplified and clear, and that there is no hint of overselling of unnecessary extras, and the service delivery is exemplary. Chinese tourists will spend freely on a great experience, but in return may have high expectations and will be quick to turn to social media if they feel they have been poorly served, ripped off, or disrespected. Transparent pricing, high quality service, and good directions and assistance will all be valued highly in this market.

The popularity of countries such as USA and Australia over the past decade also feeds into the growth in the self-drive sector. Many Chinese tourists will have enjoyed flydrive holidays in Florida, California, or throughout the Australian states. These countries lead the self-drive market globally, with open roads, long distances, plenty of parking and easy navigation. Europe is still catching up and VisitBritain figures, for example, show that public transport still far outweighs self-drive. However, in the 2019 figures from Zuzuche, the UK came in as the 10th biggest self-drive destination for Chinese tourists behind USA, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, and France. It seems likely that once we start living in a post-coronavirus world, European car rental companies, destinations and the hospitality and travel industries should prepare for an upsurge in demand from China for self-drive holidays, and should prepare themselves within their recovery plans with a clear sales and marketing strategy for China, and a product development plan which includes consideration for the Chinese driver.