Chinese tourists are traveling again, opting for long-distance domestic travel

In China, as elsewhere, years of pandemic-related lockdowns have prompted a change in tourist behavior.

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Chinese tourists want to travel again.

But this time the usual suspects – Venice, Paris and Madrid, for example – are not their top picks.

As China’s reopening gathers momentum after three years of Covid-19 restrictions, the country’s travel-hungry citizens are emerging with profound changes, according to the Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute, an independent consultancy based in Germany.

“The Chinese tourists we will welcome this year and in the years to come are very different from those who have come before,” said Wolfgang Georg Arlt, founder and managing director of COTRI, at ITB Berlin, the world’s largest tourism trade fair .

In China, as elsewhere, years of pandemic-related lockdowns have prompted a shift away from major tourist attractions toward “more nature-focused, more outdoors-oriented tourism,” Arlt said. He highlighted the emergence of trends such as camping and glamping, as well as family-oriented travel.

Perhaps more importantly, many Chinese vacationers are still exploring the wealth of travel opportunities in their own country, he said.

It used to be that if you were an important person in China, you had to travel internationally.

Wolfgang Georg Arlt

Founder and CEO of the Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute

“During the country’s three years of lockdown, everyone had to travel domestically – including the rich – which gave a boost to the domestic tourism industry,” Arlt said.

This could mean a significant shift in the international travel market, to which Chinese tourists are making an outsized contribution.

“It used to be that if you were an important person in China, you had to travel internationally. If you were traveling domestically, you were either too poor or too stupid to travel internationally,” Arlt added.

“That’s changed now,” he said.

In addition, “the quality and variety of domestic travel offerings has improved. So we not only have to measure ourselves against other international destinations, but also against the domestic market,” says Arlt, who is also director of the Meaningful Tourism Center, a Hamburg-based consultancy for sustainable travel.

Chinese tourists made nearly 170 million overseas trips in 2019, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

In the first half of this year alone, their outbound travel spend exceeded $127.5 billion, according to a study by Chinese travel booking site

Chinese outbound travel this year is expected to rebound to about two-thirds of 2019’s highs, with around 110 million border crossings from China, according to COTRI.

However, hotel group Accor estimates that around three out of four Chinese travelers will remain in the country.

“We assume that 70 to 80% of travelers will continue to stay in China. Flight capacity is not yet at 2019 levels,” Accor’s global chief commercial officer, Karelle Lamouche, told CNBC Travel.

Since the country reopened its borders in early January, many potential travelers have been stuck at home due to a lack of flight capacity. In the week of Feb. 6-12, international flights from China rebounded just 9% from their 2019 levels, with 63% of those flights being operated by Chinese carriers, according to data from Alibaba-owned travel booking site Flggy.

Meanwhile, many Chinese citizens have been plagued by delays in passport renewals and visa applications, as well as some short-lived travel bans from countries like Japan and South Korea.

“Without the passports, without the visas,” we can’t be China-ready, said Ralf Ostendorf, head of market management at the tourism site visitBerlin.

Chinese outbound travel is forecast to recover to about two-thirds of its pre-pandemic levels in 2023.

Leopatricius | E+ | Getty Images

Because of these shortcomings, countries that can meet the changing needs of Chinese travelers have emerged as clear winners. Thailand, for example, offers visas on arrival to fully vaccinated Chinese tourists who have travel insurance.

“Thailand is becoming the top tourist destination for Chinese customers,” said Simeon Shi, chief strategy officer and head of corporate development at Flggy, noting that Thailand welcomed 180,000 Chinese tourists from January to mid-February.

The country’s Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said last month he expected up to 15 million Chinese tourists to visit the country this year — about half of all arrivals.

However, other traveler preferences may be more difficult. Before the pandemic, the majority (55%) of Chinese tourists chose to book their outbound trips through group tour operators, although acceptance of independent travel has increased.

This trend is unlikely to go away Coming soon, Shi said — though the types of services they’re looking for have changed slightly.

If they decide to go abroad, I think group travel will still be their first choice.

Simeon Schi

Chief Strategy Officer and Head of Corporate Development at Flggy

“Even today, most Chinese don’t have passports,” he said. As the travel market develops, he expects “group tours will still be their first choice,” Shi said.

However, due to the pandemic, many tour operators have closed or reduced capacity, creating opportunities for new entrants to come up with bespoke services, he noted.

Younger Chinese tourists, for example, may prefer to visit a local coffee shop they’ve seen on social media rather than visit major tourist attractions, he added.

Arlt agreed that niche products and special interest tours, including those that differentiate between first-time visitors and returning visitors, could be the way for companies to attract the “new” Chinese tourist.

“Understand what you have to offer, what segment of the Chinese market is right for it, and then offer it,” Arlt said.

“Don’t be afraid of niche markets in China,” he added. “Niche markets in China are millions of people.”

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