“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – Saint Augustine
Coinciding with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Britain, the recent decision by the UK government to ease visa regulations for Chinese tourists is aimed at recouping some of the £1.2 billion (US$1.8 billion) reportedly lost annually by the UK as Chinese globetrotters opt to visit other European destinations instead. The new regulations – which come into effect in January 2016 – will issue Chinese tourists to the UK with a multiple-entry visa valid for two years – four times the current six-month limit for a standard visitor visa. A commitment was also made to continue with plans for a new 10 year multi-entry visa for Chinese tourists at the same price (£85).
This new relaxation – which UK business leaders and retailers have long been calling for – comes at a time when Chinese travellers are entirely transforming the international market, annually spending £500 million (US$766 million) in the UK alone. The new policy also arrives in the wake of the popping of China’s stock market bubble, which shifted expectations several pegs south and hit the middle, and, by extension, the travelling classes, squarely in the wallet. The new UK visa rules are certain to encourage more Chinese travellers to fit Britain into their travel plans, but will a widespread tightening of Gucci purse-strings see them staying at home to explore the world’s third largest nation – their “backyard” – instead?
Sizing up a market brimming with potential, Professor Wolfgang Arlt, Director of COTRI (China Outbound Tourism Research Institute) is blunt: ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet. Chinese international travel is only just starting. With only about 5 percent of Chinese currently possessing a passport, travelling internationally is one of the most prestigious things to do, so it’s going to grow. It’s simply here to stay.’
Gary Bowerman – Director of Check-in Asia Hotels & Travel, an Asia-based marketing and trends research firm, and author of The New Chinese Traveller: Business Opportunities from the Chinese Travel Revolution – initially strikes a rather more cautionary note: “This is a little hard to tell, and will depend on how the slowing growth ripples down to day-to day domestic considerations, such as consumer prices and property valuations.” More optimistically, however, he adds: “The official figures from the recent China National Day public holiday, one of China’s two annual Golden Weeks, showed impressive outbound travel growth – although the majority travelled within Asia. The United States was the only non-Asian destination in the top 6 for Chinese travellers during the Golden Week.”
Continuing his upbeat appraisal, Bowerman adds: “Many destinations globally, from Sri Lanka to the US and Japan to Spain are reporting strong year on year growth of Chinese travellers. This is partly because Chinese and global airlines are opening routes to new global destinations from Chinese second and third tier cities, not just from the major cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.”
The stock market plummet has coincided with the meteoric rise of China’s as a travelling nation, for the first time in its history. Milestones have been cropping up with metronomic regularity: in 2014, a record 109 million outbound crossings departed China. In the same year, Chinese arrivals to the US were up by 21% in the first nine months year on year. Chinese travellers already splashed out an astronomical US$165 billion abroad, up 28% on the previous year and more than anyone else. Chinese tourism is predicted to account for 14% of worldwide tourism revenue by 2020. With Chinese making up almost one in ten international travellers and the widespread easing of visa regulations for visitors from China, even more Chinese may be tempted to travel abroad.
A growing hallmark of Chinese travel is its increasing variety. Gary Bowerman says: “In a very short space of time, the Chinese outbound market has diversified considerably. It now encompasses everything from backpackers to the super rich booking space travel tickets. So, as in every large outbound market, there is no such thing as the de facto ‘Chinese traveller.’”
Sizing up ample reservoirs of cash still sloshing around China, Professor Arlt notes: “It’s a question of wealth: there is more money in the pocket and more willingness to spend.” With relaxation of visa requirements and restrictions, Arlt sees international travelling as the new normal for the Chinese: “After ten years or travelling, people have seen that travel has become a routine activity. Five-year and ten-year multiple entry visas are available, so there’s also greater access for Chinese travellers.”
Even in Thailand, where Chinese visitor numbers slumped after the military coup, David Eimer – author of The Emperor Far Away (Bloomsbury, 2014) notes: “In Thailand, possibly the number one destination for Chinese package tourists, the influx of Chinese tourists means that in places like Chiang Mai you’re seeing menus in characters and hotel staff speaking some Mandarin.”
Rather than predicting less numbers going overseas, industry experts see the Chinese evolving as travellers, moving from the whistlestop package tour model and gravitating towards more independent travel. This may have little to do with money, and more to do with travelling status. Professor Arlt observes: “Fewer and fewer Chinese use tour operators. There’s less bragging rights for travellers to the big cities – that’s fine if you’re a rich peasant, but not for those of a certain level of income and education. There are social pressures to show you are an important person so they want to do things that are more special and by themselves.” Arlt continues: “There’s this drift from sight-seeing to lifestyle. Travelling will become more experiential – cooking a dish or bungee jumping, trying out something new.”
Gary Bowerman concurs: “There is a tendency to consider Chinese visitors as consumers, rather than travellers – and, increasingly, this is erroneous. Experiential independent travel is the ‘new normal’ for young, affluent, high-spending Chinese tourists, which is the segment that most countries wish to attract.”
The market is set to widely variegate, breaking down the monolithic image of the shepherded one-city-in-one-day Chinese traveller. Bowerman predicts that “In terms of tourism niches, expect strong growth in self-drive, private cottage/house rentals, cruising, adventure and wilderness exploration, culinary tourism and private luxury travel.” With a market going through the gears, expect fluidity and change. Robert Kelly, a writer working on an audio history of Chinese tourism, notes that he talked to an app developer “who is creating a platform for Chinese to book little homestays around the world that normally would be inaccessible to them as they are not on large booking sites, or cannot currently be booked in Mandarin.”
Bowerman also sees a drift away from the top-of-the-range shopping bonanza of recent years, noting: “Shopping is an integral part of the travel experience for many Chinese and Asian travellers, but purchasing patterns are shifting from the marquee luxury labels to more destination relevant lifestyle, fashion and food brands.”
Looking to the future, Kelly sees “increasingly specialised options (adventure and sport tours, tours designed for aficionados of some trend, tours for the elderly, the LGBT community and so forth) and more independent or self-guided travel.”
Expanding on this, Kelly says that “French wine has great cachet among Chinese now, so much so that people are flocking to sommelier schools. More interestingly, obscure French wineries are seeing a boom in business as Chinese, using social media, have made them trendy among Chinese. Some châteaux are now openly changing their wine profile to have greater appeal to Chinese.”
While there’s less money for some to spend on travel, Chinese are increasingly mobile and likely to travel abroad. This motivation is partly propelled by a Chinese fixation with social media, a love affair that shows little sign of waning. Despite Facebook, Twitter and YouTube finding themselves on the wrong side of the Great Firewall, China has the world’s most active social media market, with over half a billion users. According to some estimates, almost half of Chinese travellers use social media in their travel planning.
As social media is more trusted than other official Chinese sources of news and information, it has a huge effect on the behaviour of users. Kelly says: “Most Chinese prefer to get their news, and opinions, from other Chinese people. And when it comes to travel trends, this is especially true. Travel is new to Chinese, and they are still working out how to do it, and what it means for them as a people and society.” Pointing to social media as a tourism facilitator, Kelly says: “When it comes to international travel, Chinese look to other Chinese for advice, guidance, trend-setting goals, and so on. And that means going on social media.”
On social media, the Chinese have a greater sense of group responsibility, according to Professor Arlt: “They see themselves as members of a travelling group and also have this sense of group support – if they find something interesting, they feel it’s their obligation to share this with others. Western travellers talk a lot about themselves, but Chinese talk less about themselves and more about the place or the experience.”
Social media use in China is also in some ways more deep-rooted than in the West. Kelly notes: “This is likely to do with the presence of massive state-backed, or endorsed, players in the field, the monopolies they hold over foreign competition, and the particulars of Chinese life: for example, most (Chinese) people don’t have credit cards (or are wary of using them online) so they have adopted e-wallets as a means of being able to make online purchases, pay bills, book restaurants and pay for meals and so forth. This makes social media pervasive in everyday life.”
Kelly also says that “Social media companies in China can provide more information about their users to advertisers than they can in the west. This makes them potentially much more effective at targeting and hence more useful to people (though potentially more intrusive as well).”
The kudos value of social media postings cannot be underestimated either. To the Chinese, displaying images of their trips on social media is an opportunity to flaunt social standing and class, largely through the luxurious shops and hotels that punctuate their holidaymaking, but also as an exhibition of good taste. The social media element of any holidaying Chinese person is a force to be reckoned with: it’s their own PR company working ceaselessly at self-promotion and cachetbuilding.
Eco-tourism and hiking are having an increasing pull. Arlt explains: “The chronic air pollution in China has kickstarted a trend for nature and greenery and blue skies. The rich tend to be 35 years of age, not 75, so sports and outdoor pursuits are what they go for.”
Kelly also sees that a big transformation is going to come from “Western markets changing to accommodate the fact that Chinese are now the major source of tourist numbers. Of course this has been going on for a while but it is going to increase.”
And what of the pull of Europe; what are the prospects for the old continent? Half-jokingly, Arlt describes Europe as: “Heritage, the source of football, Marxism and beer,” all big attractions, he believes, for Chinese visitors. “Europe may be small but there’s so much diversity. Compared to say Canada, you can see ten countries in the same time [frame]. And even within a nation there are separate countries, such as the UK.’ It’s easier, more manageable and there’s more diversity. Arlt concludes: “Europe is like going to the zoo, rather than on safari.”
Bowerman chimes in, describing Europe as “a compact continent of beguiling cultures and distinctive cuisines, languages and landscapes, and the Schengen visa makes it viable to visit more than one country per trip. This is important, as – generally speaking –Chinese travellers tend not to linger in one place for long.”
He also sees Europe as being fascinating to what is essentially a brand new audience: “For many Chinese travellers, Europe is a new part of the world to discover. Although there are large migrant Chinese communities across Europe, there is no modern legacy of mass Chinese leisure travel, so travellers are still coming to terms with Europe’s unique cultural nuances.”
There’s also the efforts a switched-on Europe is making to woo these youke (travellers): “Another difference is that Chinese travellers are keenly aware of how hard European tourism institutions are working to create tailored services and amenities especially for them. In this sense, Chinese travellers are impacting the way tourism in Europe operates, funds and promotes itself – because the potential inbound volumes are huge,” says Bowerman.
Europe also gives inbound Chinese a chance to look at how far China has come. “Chinese visitors feel a bit superior at the speed of China’s development compared to Europe. They compare Pudong with Munich and conclude that Shanghai is superior as it has more tall buildings.” This can be taken to extremes, says Arlt: “Some Chinese people on social media are amazed at the foolishness of Londoners for not levelling the Tower of London to make way for high rises of far greater real estate value.”
We may be on the cusp of a new revolution in travel and one that will define the next decades. China’s appetite for travel seems to be the same as anywhere else – a desire to break free of confines at home, to see the world and to tell everyone back home about it – but in supercharged form. Meanwhile, the UK government’s decision to ease visa regulations is set to put even more wind in the sails of Chinese travellers. Let’s hope London hangs on to its Tower.
Damian Harper has a degree in modern and classical Chinese. He has been authoring guidebooks on China for over fifteen years, and researching trends in Chinese tourism.