DestinationsChina may open as soon as this summer, but with it will come a slew of new demands from the post-pandemic Chinese tourist.

The Dragon is stirring, is the world ready for China's awakening?

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What will the post-pandemic Chinese tourist look like?
What will the post-pandemic Chinese tourist look like? Photo Credit: Getty Images/Julien Couanon

Travel is expected to come back bigger and bolder in 2022, but the global tourism industry is missing one key ingredient critical in accelerating the growth of its revival: Chinese travellers.

In January 2022, the Civil Aviation Administration of China published a five-year plan that revealed the potential for international flights to gradually resume between 2023 and 2025. But word on the street is that China could start slowly reopening as soon as this summer.

As the world waits with bated breath for the return of the world's biggest travel market, questions arise on how destinations and trade players can prepare for the latest shifts in travel expectations, attitudes and behaviours from the post-pandemic Chinese travellers.

Will the same international destinations entice Chinese travellers as before?

Popular long-haul destinations for Chinese tourists in 2019 comprised Europe (51%), the US (17%) and Australia (9%), according to travel analytics company ForwardKeys. The hottest cities in this region included Paris, Los Angeles, Moscow, London, Sydney, Rome, New York, Frankfurt, Melbourne, and San Francisco.

Digging deeper into the ForwardKeys data, the typical traveller profile to Paris, Moscow, Frankfurt, and Rome (European destinations) was groups whereas to London and the US destinations solo/business travellers dominated, while more family-sized groups travelled to Australia than to any European or US destinations.

Thailand, Japan and South Korea were the top countries in Asia for Chinese travellers in 2019, but will these three destinations see a reshuffle take place if Chinese travellers are allowed to travel internationally again?

“Despite very cautious assessments of safety outside of mainland China, 81% of survey respondents felt positive when they saw content on outbound travel. Keywords and sentiments that came up often included feeling fascinated and excited, and a craving for novelty, variety, and relaxation,” Dragon Trail International’s recent Chinese consumer sentiment survey revealed.

Nan Dai, China market expert

"The new Chinese traveller is seeking something different in terms of experiences. The younger generation is a lot more independent than the previous generations keen to explore nature, sports and local gastronomy... more than before, so expect significant changes in Chinese traveller behaviour once travel resumes."

New travel interests and habits start from home

Thanks to released travel restrictions, Chinese tourists have been the first to return to Macau. In 2021, travellers to Macau recovered around 54% of the pre-pandemic level, while outbound travel from mainland China to Hong Kong was down 96%, and in general, was down 98%.

“Before the pandemic, Macau was usually a combined holiday destination, matched up with a few days in Hong Kong. But now, due to safety concerns and travel restrictions, people tend to explore just a single destination, at a slower pace,” Dai adds.

With China's borders close, surfing and shopping in Hainan have grown in popularity among Chinese tourists. Travellers to Hainan recovered 96% in 2021 versus 2019, led by the top origin cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Chengdu — which reflects the amount of revenge shopping potential that lies in wait for the relaunch of international travel.

Sports tourism is another trend to consider, according to ForwardKeys, especially as the publicity surrounding the Winter Olympics in Beijing has led to growing enthusiasm for travel to snowy ski destinations in the China's northeastern regions. "When outbound travel resumes, I think there could be more customised trips to famous winter destinations worldwide,” says Dai.

The Chinese outbound tourism expenditure reached US$255 billion in 2019.
The Chinese outbound tourism expenditure reached US$255 billion in 2019. Photo Credit: GettyImages/Vadim_Nefedov

The millennial plus travellers is the most important group

Capturing the Chinese millennial traveller and those slightly older will be critical in driving tourism in the post-pandemic era. This group, aged 25-44, accounted for 52% of total outbound tourists from China in 2019.

If the group’s domestic travel trends within China can be any indication of their travel habits, the travel industry can expect increasing needs for a wide diversity of bespoke and private tours. Consumption is shifting from sightseeing and shopping to more unique experiences and service-oriented products.

Keep in mind that these younger tourists are also incredibly digitally savvy. They consume travel knowledge on social media platforms, live-streaming sessions, and utilise online booking services, smart visitor flow management, digital tour guides and virtual reality.

Don't underestimate the silver fox generation

The aging China population is one to watch as well. A survey conducted by the Tourism Research Centre of China showed that domestic travellers above the age of 60 has become the main driving force in China’s local tourism market. More than 11% of the elderly market spent US$1,600 on travel in 2020.

The China National Committee on Ageing predicted that the numbers of those over 60 will reach a peak of 487 million by around 2050, accounting for over a third of the total population.

“With the improvement of the quality of life, many elderly people would be eager to travel. However, for outbound travel, they prefer to choose neighbouring countries or regions with shorter flight times for more convenient travel,” says China market expert, Nancy Dai.

Preferred airlines to fly

The top 10 foreign airlines for long-haul travel based on seat capacity in 2019, according to ForwardKeys, comprised United Airlines, Aeroflot, Lufthansa, Delta Air Lines, Air France, KLM, American Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Finnair and S7 Airlines.

Before the pandemic, air fares decreased by 17% between 1999 and 2019 large due China’s well-developed high-speed rail. Based on this trend, it seems that Chinese travellers may expect cheaper airfares, and airlines should expect higher competition.

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