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.

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.

Just arrived in the UK: 120,000 wealthy Chinese tourists

As schoolchildren across the UK settle into classroom teaching for the first time since spring, and undergraduates ready themselves for a return to campus, there’s a large group of prospective tourists flying into the UK to start at or return to their universities at the end of September. Chinese students in higher education outside China are rich and influential and they’re looking for places to visit – and there’s over 100,000 of them in the UK.

So let’s look a closer look at Chinese students in higher education in the UK; who are they, and why should you be promoting your product to them?

How many Chinese students are there in the UK?

In 2018-9 a record number of Chinese students studied in the UK, with the Higher Education Statistics Agency recording that the number of Chinese students rose above 120,000 for the first time. And there’s been a steady and significant increase in their numbers over recent years; in the 5 years to 2018-9 the number of Chinese students in the UK increased by 34%.

But will Chinese students come to the UK for their studies during the time of Covid-19?

Any worries that Chinese students may not return to the UK for the start of the 2020-1 academic year seem unfounded. While the US is suffering from its current political tensions with China as well as a negative perception of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the UK continues to be regarded favourably, not least thanks to its handling of the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) challenge earlier this year. The cancellation of the IELTS tests put in doubt access by Chinese students to under- and post-graduate study in English-speaking countries including the UK, USA and Australia. But UK universities reacted quickly and showed great flexibility in recognising the results of other English language tests in order to maintain the access of Chinese students to higher education here.

The British Council, the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, released a survey in June showing that only 3 percent of students currently enrolled at UK universities had cancelled their study plans. And major universities are telling us that the level of cancellations at this stage is no higher than would be seen in a ‘normal’ year.

Plus, UK universities are going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that hygiene and safety measures are in place on campus, and that travel to the UK is seen to be safe. Queen’s University Belfast, which has around 1,200 Chinese students, has even been planning a to charter a jet to fly its new and returning students to Northern Ireland from China.

Why promote your tourism product to Chinese students in the UK?

So there are over 120,00 Chinese studying in the UK (2018-9 figures), but why should you promote your tourism product to them?

Chinese students have lots of money to spend

Wealthy Chinese students studying abroad have annual allowances in the tens of thousands of pounds, making them a massive target for brands. Stories of Chinese students chartering private ‘planes to travel to and from university abound, and some calculations put Chinese students’ average disposable income at around £28,000.

At a time when high-end retail is suffering, Chinese students continue to provide a rich source of shoppers for luxury outlets and gift shops at visitor attractions.

And they’re not just in London

Three out of the top ten universities by share of Chinese students are in the North, with the University of Liverpool alone hosting nearly 5,000 Chinese students in total. Nearby the University of Manchester hosts a similar number while the University of Sheffield welcomes around 3,700. Meanwhile Cardiff University is home to 3,500 Chinese students. With a national spread, all but the most remote of tourism providers can benefit in investing in activities to attract this cohort.

Chinese students like to travel 

China Travel Outbound’s research with Wonderful Copenhagen carried out in early 2020 found that more than a third of surveyed Chinese students in the UK had already been on a city break while studying here. And 25% planned to take another international city break during their time here. In fact, the average number of overseas city breaks already taken was three, with an average length of stay of 6.2 nights. 

And they will actively be looking for places to visit over Christmas and Easter

Limited flight capacity between the UK and China, and the possible requirement of quarantine on return to their home country, will encourage Chinese students to remain in Europe over the university holidays. So they’ll actively be looking for places to visit.

Chinese students are great advocates for your product

Studies show that Chinese students overseas continue to use Chinese social media such as Weibo, WeChat and Little Red Book rather than migrating to Instagram and Twitter. Our research with Wonderful Copenhagen found that fewer than 1 in 5 students used Instagram and fewer than 1 in 20 used Facebook. And the nature of the Chinese digital landscape and online connectedness of Chinese students and Gen Z means that those visiting are great advocates for your product, with influence far beyond these shores to their fellow netizens at home.

Chinese students can help you maintain a presence in Chinese digital channels when Chinese outbound tourists, including China’s Key Opinion Leaders, are in short supply, and help influence destination choice when outbound travel from China fully starts up again.

Chinese students often stay in the UK after graduating

Since the UK brought back the two-year post-study work visa in 2019, graduating overseas students have been allowed to stay in the UK for to work, or look for work, in any career or position of their choice for two years after completing their studies. With the chance to work overseas a big draw in studying in the UK, your chances of repeat visits, especially with visiting friends and family, make Chinese students an even more profitable prospect.

And the UK is now the number one choice for Chinese students who would like to study overseas

A July ’20 study by New Oriental Education, one of China’s largest educational firms, found that 47% of Chinese students would choose the UK to study abroad, with 37% choosing the US. This is the first time that the UK has overtaken the US as the top destination for Chinese students in this survey.

With China the single largest country of origin for international students worldwide, with over 600,00 Chinese studying overseas in 2018, the prospects for UK tourism to benefit from the patronage of Chinese students has never been brighter.

Contact us now for a no obligation chat about how we can help you attract Chinese students to your destination, visitor attraction or retail outlet today.

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.

Are Chinese tourists becoming more responsible travellers?

Throughout 2019, the outbound Chinese tourism industry continued to prosper and expand, with an increasing number of worldwide travel destinations breaking into this incredibly lucrative market, offering many more reasons to fly. According to data from the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, in 2008 there were 43.8 million overseas trips made by Chinese tourists, just ten years later in 2018 this number had skyrocketed to 149.7 million and, it is estimated that the Chinese outbound tourist market will be worth $270 billion by 2025. In addition to this, President Xi has expressed great ambitions to open the skies and promote more flights to and from China. In September 2019 he announced the much-anticipated opening of Beijing’s Daxing International Airport. This new airport will be the key to enabling international inbound and outbound travel, acting as a pivotal air traffic hub. Already, it operates over 100 routes and connects to around 112 destinations worldwide. However, in the wake of the climate movement, this ever-growing outflux of Chinese tourism has caused some concern. Not only because of the flight emissions, but also because of some assumptions that the Chinese are less concerned than some other nations about their impact on the environment. 

China has struggled with pollution in the past, but arguably the extent of this pollution has been exaggerated by the media in other parts of the world. For example, images of a heavily polluted Beijing that were shared extensively via the media throughout the earlier part of last decade. Famously, in 2014 The Daily Mail published an article claiming that the pollution in Beijing was so bad that people were having to watch the sunrise on a giant LED screen in the middle of Tiananmen Square. This article was accompanied with a grainy image of a dystopian, smog-soaked Beijing where a handful of people were watching the virtual sunrise emerge. The article went viral, and a number of other prominent news outlets including Time, CBS News, and the Huffington Post published the same story. A week later technology news website, Tech in Asia, furiously disproved this story, explaining that the sunrise was actually part of an advert for tourism in China’s Shandong Province, and had nothing to do with pollution.  

Similarly, when some media outlets have written about Chinese tourists, their environmental impact has also been a point of focus and concern, with Chinese tourists sometimes being portrayed as irresponsible. For example, there have been tales of excessive waste, with viral stories of tourist groups overfilling plates at all -you- can-eat buffets and then leaving piles of uneaten food. Other articles have complained that Chinese tourists act in an uncivilized manner and disrespect the environments that they visit. For example, there was the famous incident in 2013 of Chinese teenager, Ding Jinhao, defacing an ancient Egyptian temple, sparking outrage and a backlash against Chinese tourists for their misbehaviour abroad. Despite the fact that isolated incidents such as this do not reflect Chinese tourists as a whole, if you Google ‘Chinese tourists’ you will be met with numerous articles and videos which name Chinese tourists as ‘rude’ or ‘unruly’.

It seems the singling out of Chinese tourists by some media outlets has, at times, created an unflattering and negative stereotype of the Chinese traveller, and this includes their impact on and regard for the environment. 

In a recent Oliver Wyman survey entitled, ‘The Changing Face of the Chinese Traveller’ the author lists four common beliefs about Chinese tourists which include ‘They spend indiscriminately’ and ‘They are always in groups’. These beliefs have ignited concerns around over tourism and over-consumption. However, there is evidence to disprove these images of the Chinese traveller. In recent years the Chinese have expressed their desire to improve sustainability and reduce their impact on the planet both at home and overseas, and action is being taken in order to make these desires a reality.  

Increasing demand for sustainable tourism 

In November 2019, Gillian Tans, the chairwoman of Booking.com reported to CNBC that the demand for sustainable tourism and responsible travel alternatives was drastically increasing amongst Chinese tourists. A study conducted by Booking.com found that 79% of Chinese customers would be happy to change their selected holiday destination if they were offered an alternative that was better for the environment. Furthermore, Tans expressed how Chinese tourists are beginning to opt for alternative and more sustainable accommodation choices such as home sharing, which now accounts for 20% of Booking.com’s overall revenues. This kind of accommodation is more flexible as well as environmentally friendly, Chinese travellers can cook their own food, which will subsequently produce less waste. It also allows them share in large groups for a cheaper price, an arrangement which suits large multi generation family travel groups. These kinds of choices made by cost aware and progressively savvy Chinese travellers are setting new trends for future Chinese tourists. Furthermore, these statistics show that a growing number of tourists are veering towards making sustainable decisions when travelling. 

Shopping locally and travelling small

For a long time, the Chinese have been known for their love of shopping, with discounted fashion destinations such as Bicester Village considered to be a prime UK destination spot. In 2018 alone, the global spend by Chinese tourists came to $277.3bn, the highest in the world. However, over the past couple of years there has been a shift in terms of what Chinese tourists want to spend their money on.  Gillian Tans highlighted the growing trend amongst Chinese tourists for shopping locally and eating locally produced foods when abroad, she explained that these decisions are made as a way of knowing what kind of impact they are having on the destinations that they travel to.

This desire to ensure that they are making a positive impact on tourism in the local market reflects how travelling and shopping habits amongst some Chinese tourists are changing and becoming more environmentally motivated.

In addition to this, many young affluent Chinese travellers are now favouring other activities besides retail. There are more Free Independent Travellers (FITS) than ever before, and this category of traveller favours cultural experiences and private personalised tours that they can share across their personal social media platforms i.e. WeChat and Weibo. As a result of this, the traditional tour style of travelling in large groups on a hop on hop off tour bus trip complete with extensive shopping excursions are declining in market share. Instead, many Chinese travellers prefer tours at cultural hotpots in smaller, more intimate groups. This is highly beneficial for popular wildlife destinations such as Scotland, which is known and favourited by the Chinese for its natural beauty, as it will prevent these areas becoming too overwhelmed by large groups of tourists. Furthermore, the decrease of interest in material goods is positive in terms of reducing the carbon footprint of Chinese tourists. 

Awareness and protection of wildlife

The Chinese are quickly becoming more concerned about protecting animals and wildlife, both at home and overseas.  In 2015, Northwest China’s Qinghai Province was given approval to build the Sanjiangyuan National Park, it was one of the first provinces in China to trial the national park system. In August 2019, the first forum on national parks was held in Xining and 450 representatives from regulatory agencies, experts and scholars from China and overseas attended. They discussed topics such as construction and management of nature reserves, biodiversity protection, and the future of natural heritage sites. The aim of this is to attract people from all over the world to come and see China’s national parks in order to learn about its wildlife and experience its natural beauty in a way that will still protect biodiversity. 

There are also cultural shifts occurring in light of the actions taken by conservationists to protect wildlife. Shark fin soup, once one of the most famous Chinese delicacies, is now becoming frowned upon by many due to its wastefulness and impact on shark species. For some time, sales of shark fin soup have been decreasing, back in 2014 the Guardian had already reported a 70% drop in sales. The dish, which was often consumed during special occasions such as weddings and high-class events, was banned by the government from being served at state events in 2012 as part of an austerity campaign. Since then, a number of other factors have contributed to the reduction of this once highly successful business. For example, the awareness created by conservationists that 100 million sharks were being killed each year, leading to the decline in some shark populations by as much as 98%. Additionally, high profile celebrities have spoken out against the shark fin business, most notably former basketball star Yao Ming, whose awareness campaign on the impact of the shark fin industry has greatly influenced the decrease in consumption of this dish. Celebrity influence is China is strong, and it is very positive that high profile Chinese celebrities like Ming are using their status to influence the minds of the Chinese people, who frequently respect the celebrity opinion above others.

Overseas, a portion of Chinese tourists are beginning to take their impact on nature into consideration when making holiday decisions. Between 2016 and 2019, there was a 13 percent and 26 percent reduction in elephant rides taken and shows watched by Chinese tourists across destinations in Thailand, respectively. This was discovered by a survey conducted by the World Animal Protection (WAP) in August 2019. The survey also revealed that 77% of Chinese tourists interviewed from 15 main tourist counties in Thailand said they would rather see animals in the wild, and 84% said wild animals should live in the wild rather than in captivity. This data reflects how wildlife friendly tours are steadily becoming more favoured by Chinese tourists which is an environmentally positive development in Chinese outbound tourism. According to China Daily, WAP released survey results in May 2019 showing that more than 90% of Chinese travellers participating in overseas wildlife tours said they would reject activities that could be harmful to wildlife. Again, celebrity influence and the media are highly accountable for driving these decisions forward. The 2017 documentary, Black Elephant, by Shanghai director Zhang Chaodao has now been viewed millions of times, the film exposes the brutal cruelty and mistreatment of elephants in Thailand for the sake of tourist entertainment, and has played a role in the decline of this activity. 

The newfound interest in Antarctic vacations amongst affluent Chinese tourists in 2019 was also accompanied with awareness around the impacts of tourism on even the most remote of environments. An article published by Lifestyle Inquirer in November 2019 followed the experience of a Chinese traveller, Yu Tong, on her trip to Antarctica for her 30th birthday. Throughout the trip, the tour guides made everyone aware of the wildlife and all visitors had to disinfect their shoes and stay at least five metres away from any animals. Yu Tong came away from this adventure with more awareness and understanding of environmental protection, and consequently applied this to her day to day life. For example, she began taking public transport more often and buying less luxurious products. This kind of media angle is becoming more frequent in terms of encouraging more awareness amongst Chinese tourists regarding sustainable travel.

The positive lifestyle changes taken by Yu Tong after her trip reflect how with the right kind of education and approach from the media, Chinese tourists can share this knowledge and inspire others to make environmentally conscious decisions. 

Conclusion 

These outcomes show how progress is being made and actions are being taken amongst the Chinese to improve sustainability and reduce their carbon footprint. We know that the initiative and willingness to make a difference is already there but there are certainly improvements to be made, so how can we also help to influence further change? For certain, China is a collective society and following the lead of influencers is a huge part of Chinese consumer behaviour. Celebrities and Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) can make a difference to trends, opinions and ultimately, action. A prime example of this is Chinese superstar, model and actress, Angelababy, who has been speaking out against the excessive trafficking and killing of Pangolins across Vietnam and China. For a long time, Pangolin meat was considered a delicacy in China and their scales were used as a medicine for chronic conditions such as cancer. Around 100,000 Pangolins are poached each year. Since 2016, Angelababy has been an ambassador for WildAid and has used her celebrity influence to put a stop to this cruel trade and raise awareness of its consequences. With a Weibo account of over 60 million followers, she is China’s equivalent to the Kardashians in terms of her status. This means that her ability to influence is extremely powerful. Since 2017, all Pangolins have been fully protected from cross-border commercial trade under international law. This would not have been achieved without the influence of Angelababy and shows how involving a high-profile celebrity in animal and environmental protection campaigns can cause a great impact and bring about drastic changes in attitude. Whilst government initiatives will always be the best way to enforce change, involving celebrity faces in future campaigns to promote sustainability will result in further positive changes in consumer attitudes and actions.

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