Chinese tourists are finding new favorites for their holiday trips - and money

Chinese tourists are finding new favorites for their holiday trips - and money
Chinese tourists feed swans at the Danube in Prague, the Czech Republic, in 2015.
PHOTO: China Daily/Asia News Network

Last week 6 million Chinese tourists travelled abroad during a national holiday, and that likely meant big paydays for traditional tourist destinations, such as London or Paris.

But, increasingly, China's travellers are taking their families - and their money - to less conventional locales.

All told, more than 700 million in China travelled during the semi-annual Golden Week holiday from Oct. 1 to Oct. 8, according to the government. And while the couple million tourists who took the week to go abroad mostly visited longtime Asia favorites, there're indications that new countries are catching their attentions.

That is, four of the five most popular international destinations among Chinese tourists during the eight-day holiday were located in Asia, according to travel bookings platform Trivago. Those locations included Hong Kong, Tokyo, Osaka and Bangkok, with Paris the lone European city in the top five.

HOT NEW LOCATIONS

Besides those mainstays, mainland tourists bitten by the travel bug are also increasingly adventurous. Some are looking farther afield for their next vacation and others eschewing the traditional package tours in favour of self-planned trips.

These were the "hot new locations" that saw greater than 50 per cent growth in the number of tourist bookings this year, according to Ctrip, one of the largest travel services providers in China. Expedia-owned Trivago also mentioned similar trends:

  • Morocco
  • Turkey
  • The United Arab Emirates
  • The Czech Republic
  • Finland
  • Austria
  • Germany
  • Vietnam
  • Cambodia
  • Italy

Accompanying the growing desire to visit those destinations is the increased demand for more personalized holiday experiences, market research shows.

Tailor-made travel services are fast becoming customary among wealthy travellers looking to escape cookie-cutter vacation packages. According to Ctrip, factors that more Chinese tourists are seeking out from their holidays include "avoiding big crowds," "no shopping" and private travel guides.

When travellers visit places others haven't, they can derive "social cachet," and that's become a trend among the middle class, according to Ben Cavender, a principal at consultancy China Market Research Group.

"Increasingly, we are seeing well-heeled Chinese travel to hard-to-reach destinations for the bragging rights and WeChat pictures [to] show they've been somewhere exotic," he said.

THE BIG PICTURE

Still, overall travel patterns for the year show that major Asian countries continue to make up most of the top destinations visited by mainland travellers.

Both Trivago and Ctrip said Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Taiwan were among the most in-demand locations for Chinese tourists travelling overseas.

More than 70 per cent of Chinese tourists travelling abroad will visit other Asian countries this year, according to Ctrip. Of those Asia-bound travellers, 45 per cent will head to countries in Southeast Asia, with Thailand proving the most popular destination in that region, a Ctrip spokesman told CNBC.

Meanwhile, those tourists are also willing to spend more - and not just on shopping.

"We see that Chinese travellers are spending more and more," Trivago CEO Rolf Schromgens told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Monday. Chinese tourist expenditure on hotel rooms has increased 23 per cent compared to the year before, he added.

Contrary to the "stereotype of Chinese tourists," an increasing number of mainland travellers are now more willing to spend on experiences, with luxury hotels and unique travel services starting to form a larger expenditure item for many, according to Ctrip.

STAYING LOCAL

Still, for most Chinese travellers, domestic destinations took the crown, especially during Golden Week.

About 59 per cent of searches on Trivago were for domestic travel during the period, a spokeswoman said. Destinations that Chinese tourists were most interested in visiting for the holiday included Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu, Chongqing and Shanghai, according to Trivago.

Those results fit in the wider trend of a pick-up in domestic travel: Domestic trips made by Chinese tourists increased 13.5 per cent in the first half - exceeding the 5.1 per cent rise in overseas travel recorded in the same period, Reuters said.

With the slowdown in growth in the world's second-largest economy in recent years, the lower costs associated with domestic travel are likely to prove more attractive to local consumers.

Convenience, however, has also been a driver for the increase in domestic travel. As the growth in international flight options has not kept up with growth in demand, purchasing tickets without advanced planning can prove difficult and lead to more interest in alternatives that are less of a hassle, Cavender said.

Safety concerns also likely played a part in influencing travel decisions among mainland tourists, Cavender added, alluding to incidents that have taken place in Europe and the US in recent quarters.

Yet while convenience may be driving travel patterns, there's one nearby country conspicuously missing from both Ctrip's and Trivago's lists of top travel destinations for the year: South Korea.

Despite mainland citizens making up close to half of all tourist arrivals in South Korea as recently as February this year, Seoul's popularity has since tapered substantially. Statistics from the Korean government showed that Chinese visitor numbers fell by close to 70 per cent in August compared to one year earlier.

China's ties with South Korea have been strained ever since the latter's deployment of a US anti-missile system following a ramp up in North Korean weapons tests over the past year.

This article was first published in CNBC.

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