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.

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