by Oliver Smith, The Telegraph, April 13, 2018
In the first year of the new millennium, a modest 10.5m overseas trips were made by Chinese residents. Fast forward to 2017 and the figure was 145m – an astounding increase of 1,380 per cent.
In less than two decades China has grown from travel minnows to the world’s most powerful outbound market, leapfrogging the US – and leaving it in its wake. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) Chinese tourists overseas spent $261.1bn in 2016, up from around $10bn in the year 2000 (the figure for 2017 is likely to top $300bn). Collectively, America’s globetrotters parted with a relatively paltry $123.6bn.
Now consider this: just seven per cent of Chinese citizens – or 99 million people – possess a passport, compared to around 40 per cent of Americans, and 76 per cent of Britons.
Clearly the potential for further growth – China’s population is 1.415bn – is staggering. The China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI) predicts that overseas trips by the country’s residents will increase from last year’s figure of 145m to more than 400m by 2030.
“That means that out of the 600 million additional trips in international tourism forecasted by UNWTO, bringing the total from 1.2 billion in 2017 to 1.8 billion by 2030, almost half of them will originate in China,” it says. The country will account for a quarter of international tourism.
No wonder tourist boards are falling over themselves to woo the country’s expanding army of middle-class travellers. VisitBritain's GREAT China Welcome campaign, for example, was launched in 2014. Hotels, tour operators and attractions are being urged to make themselves “China-ready” by providing information in Mandarin or Cantonese and adapting their products for the Chinese market and culture.
The British Museum, Chatsworth House and Marriott Hotels are among the 400-odd businesses to have taken heed so far. More curiously, the UK tourist board also asked Chinese travellers to rename some of Britain’s most famous attractions, with the Gherkin becoming “the pickled little cucumber” and Scotland's Highland Games reassigned the moniker “Special Skirt Party”.
Where are Chinese tourists going?
The figure of 145m foreign trips is slightly misleading. That’s because it includes journeys made to China’s special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, as well as Taiwan (whose status is disputed but which is also considered part of “Greater China”). These three accounted for 69.5m “overseas” journeys made in 2017.
Many millions more enjoy regular domestic holidays. Telegraph Travel’s Sally Peck, a former resident of China, explains: “Big cities – Beijing and Shanghai top the destination wishlist – see so many domestic tourists on even ordinary weekends that major shopping streets have one-way pavements, with police directing foot traffic.”
She adds: “Often domestic trips take patriotic inspiration: go to the Three Gorges Dam, a grim industrial site in one of the country’s poorest regions, for example, and it’s swarming with visitors. Intrepid young people head to the mountainous Yunnan province, which borders Burma, Laos and Vietnam, and is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the country.”
Beyond Greater China, it is largely the economies of other Asian countries reaping the benefit of the rapid growth in outbound travel. Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Singapore are also among the top 10 destinations for Chinese tourists. The US and Italy complete the list.
It is therefore no surprise to discover that the rise of the Chinese traveller has coincided with a massive surge in total overseas arrivals in its surrounding countries.
Thailand, the top pick after Hong Kong and Macau, welcomed 35.4m international tourists in 2017 – up from just 5.3m in 1990 (an increase of 668 per cent). Japan received 28.4m last year – up from 3.2m in 1990 (up 887 per cent). And there were 12.9m overseas visitors to Vietnam in 2017 – up from only 250,000 in 1990 (an increase of 5,160 per cent). All of which illustrates the economic benefit of harnessing the Chinese market.
The growth of Chinese airports
All those extra trips have necessitated the rapid expansion of the country’s airports. Last year nine of the world’s 50 busiest airports, and three of the 10 busiest, were found in China. Up from six and one, respectively, in 2010.
Guangzhou Baiyun, for example, is among the fastest growing hubs in the world. It handled 65.8m passengers last year, up from 12.8m in 2000.
What are Chinese travellers like?
A recent European Commission report suggests that time is a “scarce resource for most Chinese”, who subsequently “prefer attractions that make them travel efficiently”. Those who visit Europe “most like its arts and culture, small cities and blue skies”.
When it comes to spending, it adds: “Chinese prefer to economise on food, accommodation and transportation, but they become lavish when it comes to shopping.”
Sally Peck reiterates this point: “When Chinese tourists come to Europe, they’re determined to hit – and shop in –every major capital.” The discounted fashion utopia of Bicester Village, remarkably, is as popular with Chinese visitors to Britain as Buckingham Palace.
Hidden gems aren’t usually on their travel wishlists, says Peck: “From Big Ben in London to the vineyards of Bordeaux, for first-timers, especially, they’re actively pursuing the beaten track.”
When it comes to attire, “groups often wear US trucker-style hats or visors, proclaiming the name of their tour operator”, and “there will often be impressive photographic equipment”, she adds. “An alarming number of women on domestic trips will be wearing inappropriate shoes; it is typical, while climbing misty and muddy Buddhist mountains in Chinese provinces, to find women in elaborately shoulder-padded polyester dresses with ankle-high pop socks and high heels in even the warmest of conditions.”
The risks of overtourism
Given the huge growth in outbound trips, and the propensity of Chinese travellers to visit Europe’s most famous cities and attractions, is overcrowding in cities like Venice, Barcelona and Dubrovnik about to become even more unbearable?
It is something Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of COTRI, addressed in a recent blog.
He writes: “In 2012, the hashtag #overtourism appeared on Twitter for the first time. But only last year the deterioration of the quality of life of the citizens in European destinations as diverse as Venice, Barcelona, Passau, the Cinque Terre, and Dubrovnik was blamed on this new phenomenon. Hundreds of journalistic articles were published and several conferences organized by UNWTO, WTTC and the WTM London discussed the growing number of – sometimes violent – protests by the inhabitants of destinations who feel to become dispossessed of their city under the simultaneous attack of increasing numbers of arrivals of ‘normal’ tourists, cruise ship passengers and AirBnB users. Chinese tourists feature of course also in this debates.
“Chinese are not only a part of the problem, but can also be a part of the solution. It is very hard to keep Chinese first-time visitors to Paris from going up on the Eiffel Tower, but as the number of Chinese repeat visitors is growing, these guests arrive with much less fixed ideas what is the ‘must-see’ location and the ‘normal’ time to visit. Many destinations represent a white sheet of paper for Chinese visitors, by creating attractions adapted to the needs of the Chinese source market temporal and spatial dispersion is possible.”