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.