Tour industry experts say people want new experiences in post-COVID travel
The COVID-19 pandemic brought international travel to a standstill for two years. However, as borders reopened in 2023, the Chinese outbound travel market started recovering. Notably, industry experts observed significant shifts in the preferences and habits of Chinese travelers, compared to the pre-pandemic era.
During a panel discussion at the World Travel Market event at London Excel last week, Adam Wu, CEO of the London-based Chinese Business Network Travel, said: "Foreign independent travelers, small group, and family holidays have taken precedence over large group travel, with hidden-gem or new destinations gaining popularity."
Wu also highlighted that the younger generation, including post-90s and Millennials, is now a driving force for outbound tourism, with self-drive holidays becoming a significant trend.
Wu pointed out that the demand has been rebounding steadily. According to the China Tourism Academy, the research arm of China's Ministry of Culture and Tourism, overseas destinations received a total of 40.37 million visitors from the Chinese mainland during the first half of 2023.
Data from the National Civil Aviation Administration of China revealed that passenger traffic volume on international routes during the first half of the year recovered to 23 percent of the total from the same period in 2019, with international passenger traffic volume in June recovering to 41.6 percent, compared to the same period in 2019.
Khalid Al Midfa, chairman of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority in United Arab Emirates, who was one of the panelists, emphasized how Chinese tourists' demands and interests have evolved.
"People now seek more authentic, local, and unique experiences, like ecotourism, adventure activities, and exploring lesser-known areas, rather than just visiting top attractions. They want to create their own content and memories," he said.
Sharjah, as a cultural hub of the Arab world awarded UNESCO status in 1998, attracts Chinese tourists who are interested in Arabian culture and heritage, setting it apart from the neighboring Emirates that are known more for their skyscrapers, Al Midfa said.
He also highlighted the significant growth and evolution of the Chinese outbound travel market.
"More Chinese now speak English, know what they want from travel, and are comfortable traveling independently, rather than always in groups. This independent segment is important for destinations to target," he said.
Another panellist, Lin Yiman, senior product manager at the British Museum, noted changes in the demographics of Chinese outbound travelers and the way in which they seek information.
"They now rely on multiple platforms like Redbook, or Xiaohongshu in Chinese, to find recommendations for restaurants and activities, rather than just visiting a website for what to do," she said.
Also, peer recommendations hold more weight, according to Lin.
"One of the things that we've done quite successfully is to work with key opinion leaders across different areas. They share their experiences of the museum with their followers, promoting ongoing virtual connections," she said.
In 2019, Chinese nationals made 155 million overseas visits and spent $255 billion, which is almost twice that of the total spent by visitors from the United States, three times the total spent by Germans, and almost four times the total spent by British tourists, according to data from the China Tourism Academy and the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
A newly launched report by the World Travel and Tourism Council shows travelers from the Chinese mainland spent more on shopping than individuals from other markets, spending an average of $1,350 per person.
David Goodger, managing director for Europe and the Middle East at Tourism Economics, said Chinese travelers remain an important part of the global travel recovery, and that growth from China will be widely welcomed.
"Many destinations and businesses are looking to China as the next large growth market for the coming years," he said. "They are increasingly looking at driving higher visitor value, rather than just footfall growth. Chinese visitors typically spend more per visit than those from many other markets and will be crucial for continued destination performance."
Looking ahead, Goodger said restoring connectivity is the crucial first step in driving growth from China, with air links and easy visa access both crucial.
While some return to traditional tour group activity can be expected, Goodger believes independent travel will take a growing share of travel volumes, with travelers seeking experiences beyond top spots in more diverse locations.
He expects Chinese outbound spending will fully recover to 2019 levels in 2024.
"However, this includes some increase in average spend per trip and we do not expect Chinese outbound trip volumes to regain 2019 levels until 2025," he added.