The Chinese New Year is clearly an important festival for Chongqing local Zhu Lu, judging by how she has celebrated it yearly by visiting relatives and friends in the hilly south-western city.
But this year, Ms Zhu, 38, a manager in an electronic payment firm, is breaking with tradition by going to the United States during the festive period with three friends on her first overseas trip.
Her husband is unable to join her on the 12-day, 20,000 yuan (S$4,350) trip from Feb 21 to Hawaii and Los Angeles, as his brother is visiting Chongqing during the festival, starting on Feb 19. Their 13-year-old daughter is not keen to travel.
"I thought I should go see the world while I am still young. It is better to travel during the Chinese New Year so that I can save on my leave days. The ease of getting a US visa is also a factor," Ms Zhu told The Straits Times.
China's outbound tourism boom is forecast to spike 20 per cent this year after hitting a record 109 million travellers last year. Many Chinese have been going on overseas holidays during the Chinese New Year as incomes rise, family bonds weaken and the importance of traditional festivals declines.
But this year, the trend has hit a fever pitch, buoyed by new factors such as an appreciating yuan against foreign currencies and relaxation of visa requirements by more countries for Chinese tourists. Tour agencies say they are seeing spikes of 30 per cent to as much as 300 per cent in tourist numbers to many regions, especially destinations in North-east Asia, Europe and the US.
The rising demand has fuelled price surges of up to 60 per cent in air tickets and tour packages to popular destinations such as Hokkaido in Japan.
In contrast, except for tourist islands like Phuket in Thailand, the flow to South-east Asian destinations like Singapore has reportedly dipped or stagnated due to the plunge in Chinese tourist numbers to Malaysia after three aviation tragedies involving Malaysian airlines last year.
Mr Fang Chongjun, manager of the Europe department in Zhejiang Everbright International Travel, told The Straits Times that the 50 per cent jump he sees in demand for tours to countries like Spain and Portugal is partly a result of Chinese tourists shunning South- east Asia. Another reason is the 20 per cent dip in the euro against the Chinese yuan in the past year, hitting a 13-year low of one euro to 6.97 yuan last month.
"Also, many European cities are holding seasonal sales offering big discounts, which are an enticing carrot," he said.
Chinese buyers accounted for nearly half of the world's luxury purchases last year, according to a study earlier this month by the Fortune Character Research Institute.
Demand for US and Japan holiday packages during the festive period have jumped too after both recently relaxed visa rules for Chinese nationals, mirroring efforts rolled out by many other countries to woo the Chinese tourist dollar. The US has introduced 10- year visas while Japan has extended the validity of its three- year multiple-entry visas to five years.
The changes led to a record 250,000 Japanese visas issued to Chinese tourists last month, while US visas for Chinese citizens soared 68.2 per cent in the last two months.
The yen has plunged by over 30 per cent against the yuan since 2013.
Price is, however, not a factor for many Chinese interviewed by The Straits Times.
They said that they choose to go on overseas holidays during the Chinese New Year, and the National Day week-long break in October, as they have limited paid leave benefits.
One of them is Beijing civil servant Sun Jingyan, 54, who is spending about 40,000 yuan on a two-week trip from today with her husband and their 27-year- old son to France, Italy and Switzerland.
"The falling euro is not a factor to us. We like Europe so we would have picked it as our holiday spot even if the currency has not weakened," said Madam Sun, who has also celebrated Chinese New Year overseas in places like India.
Beijing local Zhang Yang, 33, is going on a seven-day, 35,000 yuan trip with her husband and two-year-old girl to Singapore and Bintan from Feb 23, even though it costs 30 per cent more than in the off-peak period.
"My husband, who works as a manager in a logistics firm, can go on leave only during the Chinese New Year when the sector shuts down," said the 33-year-old finance executive.
Some say they simply find it too boring to celebrate Chinese New Year in China.
"The New Year mood in China is on the wane these days, making it less fun," said medical doctor Lily Li, 41, who is going on a seven-day, 60,000 yuan Hokkaido holiday from today with her husband and 11-year-old son.
Additional reporting by Lina Miao
This article was first published on February 15, 2015.
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