Japan, Thailand and Singapore benefit as Chinese tourists skip Hong Kong over golden week

Chinese tourists take photos in front of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan.
PHOTO: Reuters

Fewer Chinese travellers went overseas during "golden week" this year - but for those who did, Japan, Thailand and Singapore were the top-ranked destinations as tourists from the mainland gave Hong Kong a miss, according to China's largest travel company Ctrip.

Chinese government data showed only 6.07 million people travelled during the national holiday between October 1-6, a 15.1 per cent drop from the corresponding period last year.

Analysts attributed this to Chinese tourists opting for a "staycation", as 782 million people - a 7 per cent increase from last year - chose to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China by visiting local historical sites.

For those who did venture abroad, Japan, Thailand and Singapore ranked as the top three most-booked countries in Asia during the week, according to Chinese travel firm Ctrip, as tourists from the mainland skipped protest-hit Hong Kong for other destinations.

The city, now in its 19th week of anti-government protests, over the week saw a 50 per cent overall drop in tourism from last year, as well as a 47.8 per cent reduction in border crossings at the Luohu border checkpoint, according to government figures.

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Japan remained the most popular destination for Chinese tourists. In the first half of 2019, the nation saw 4.5 million visitors from China, up 11.7 per cent from the same period in 2018. In order of popularity, the top-visited cities were Osaka, Tokyo, Kyoto, Sapporo and Nagoya, according to Japanese media.

Over the same week, Japan increased its sales tax from 8 to 10 per cent, but Chinese shoppers - who accounted for 37 per cent, or US$15.4 billion (S$21 billion), of the spending by international visitors to the nation last year - were undeterred.

Japan saw the highest volume of overseas transactions over the week, according Alipay Mobile, the world's largest mobile payment platform. The firm declined to share the exact amount Chinese tourists had spent in Japan, but reported average spending per international traveller during golden week had increased by 15 per cent to 2,500 yuan (S$483).

Alipay is operated by Ant Financial, an affiliate of Alibaba Group Holding, which owns the Post.

Japanese department stores such as Sogo and Seibu celebrated the Chinese national holiday by holding golden week events and sales at 15 different branches across the nation, with food and arts promotions targeting Chinese shoppers.

Chinese travellers to Japan want cultural experiences involving local customs such as temple tours, heritage sites and cultural events, according to Emily Guo, a researcher at Hong Kong-based marketing research firm Cherry Blossoms.

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Experts say Thailand - the second-most booked country during golden week, according to Ctrip - saw many repeat travellers return to the country. The nation saw 1.03 million arrivals from China in August, up 19 per cent from 2018.

Guo said these travellers were more budget-conscious than those who travelled to Japan, and enjoyed the good value and picturesque scenery for sharing on social media.

"They have already travelled to Southeast Asia before, and are therefore looking for personalised and local experiences like interacting with Thai residents, jungle treks and food tours," she said, adding that many are willing to spend extra on immersive experiences such as a hotel in the countryside, or on a room with a forest view.

According to Alipay Mobile, the sale of "durian experience" packages for Chinese tourists looking to taste the spiky, pungent fruit at local farms increased by 60 per cent in Thailand and Malaysia from last year.

Shopping remained on the agenda, too. Thailand ranked second for the highest volume of overseas transactions during the week, according to data from Alipay Mobile.

Most Chinese shoppers frequented duty-free shops, convenience stores and local malls, according to local press.

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Singapore remained a destination of choice for tourists from the mainland. The city was among the most popular "traditional destinations" for them, according to China's culture and tourism ministry, with others including Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, Australia, France, Italy, and Russia.

July saw the Lion City break its record for the number of Chinese arrivals, at close to 390,000, an unprecedented 46 per cent jump from the previous month.

Analysts have attributed this to a diversion of tourists from Hong Kong, but property agents such as Clarence Foo, associate deputy group director at OrangeTee & Tie, said some of these Chinese tourists were using the golden week as a chance to eye Singaporean real estate.

"Compared to a normal week, there were probably 15 to 20 per cent more Chinese visitors who viewed property," said Foo, who counts Singaporean and international buyers among his clients." They are certainly more keen on Singapore [property] now as there isn't another comparable investment destination in Asia."

Meanwhile, the Middle East is emerging as a popular shopping destination for Chinese tourists. According to Ctrip, Dubai saw 501,000 travellers from the mainland in the first half of 2019, an 11 per cent increase from last year.

Saudi Arabia has also experienced a surge in Chinese tourists, with 7,931 heading to the country since it launched its new instant tourist visa programme on September 27.

With the new visa, which can be obtained online or upon arrival, tourists can stay in the country for up to 90 days, and unwed foreign men and women can for the first time share hotel rooms.

"Saudi Arabia has the potential to become very popular with Chinese tourists," said Guo from Cherry Blossoms, adding that travellers from the mainland are increasingly looking for exciting new adventures. "It's a status symbol for them to visit a country others haven't visited before."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.