'Silver' tourists may become travel goldmine

A couple visits Tian'anmen Square in Beijing. As Chinese society ages rapidly, growing demand from senior tourists is likely to make them a powerful group within the nation's travel industry.
PHOTO: China Daily/ANN

Senior travelers get a rough deal from travel agencies, who believe the low profits they generate aren't worth the efforts required to make them. However, as China becomes an increasingly aging society, the tide may be turning for older travelers, as Su Zhou reports.

Since she retired four years ago, Chen Ying, 59, has been bitten by the travel bug.

The last trip the former physician made was at the end of April, when she visited Yunnan province in Southwest China. The 10-day jaunt included trips to Kunming, Lijiang, Dali and the Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture, but it only cost 800 yuan (S$176).

"I saw the advertisement at the travel agency near my home, and I thought it was a good bargain," said Chen, from Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province.

Travelers age 55 and younger got an even better deal, though. They were given free trips because they were regarded as having greater spending power than seniors and were more likely to spend reasonable amounts at the various destinations.

The super-cheap package aroused the suspicions of Chen's two daughters, who warned her about the tight schedule, the strong possibility of "forced shopping" and even verbal abuse from the tour guide. Chen regarded their concerns as exaggerated because "there were a lot of seniors joining the trip", so she set out accompanied by her neighbours. They didn't actually join the group until they arrived in Kunming.

Although the trip failed to live up to the promises made in the advertisements, Chen was generally satisfied because the package was extremely cheap and she didn't feel pressured to purchase souvenirs or other unnecessary items.

"The schedule was too tight, though," she said. "For a few days it felt as though we were just driving endlessly along bumpy roads. On the 24-hour train journey back to Shijiazhuang, I didn't rest well, so I took a few days to recover from the trip later," she added. "I'm not that old, but I don't think I can endure these (cheap) tours anymore."

Aging population

Figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics in 2013 show that the number of Chinese age 60 or older was 202 million. By 2050, that number will nearly double to about 400 million.

The older generation's enthusiasm for travel is growing rapidly. According to Ctrip, a leading online travel agency, 87 per cent of those age 50 and older said they definitely plan to travel, and 13 per cent said they would "probably" travel. However, 29 per cent of those age 25 years and younger, and 17 per cent of people in the 26 to 30 age bracket, said they had no travel plans.

A survey conducted in November by the Gerontological Society of Shanghai and East China University of Science and Technology found that many customers were dissatisfied with the services and products provided by travel agencies. About 30 per cent of the 2,341 seniors interviewed both online and offline complained that "they felt they had been treated without proper respect while traveling".

The survey also highlighted violations of senior tourists' rights, such as a lack of legal contracts, forced shopping, unexpected changes to itineraries and even travelers being abandoned in the middle of trips.

A retired teacher from Jiangsu province, who would only give her surname as Zhou, said she was abandoned in Beijing after she argued with the tour guides and refused to buy items in a jade shop.

"My husband and I had to book the return train tickets ourselves," said Zhou, 60.

'Sensitive about price'

Her experience underlined a growing problem. One tour guide, who asked to be quoted anonymously, said the travel industry doesn't actively seek business from senior travelers because they pose too many risks while providing too little profit.

"They are quite sensitive about the price," the guide said. "Unlike young people who prefer starred hotels, delicious food and fancy places, seniors only want to visit the most famous scenic spots as part of an arranged package that includes accommodations and food."

She said one of the reasons tours for seniors are so cheap is that the accommodations are often of very low quality.

Retired teacher Zhou said she doesn't like starred hotels. "Hostels equipped with the most basic facilities such as air conditioning, television and hot water will do fine," she said.

The calibre of many guides is also low, partly because they have to pay tour companies to let them lead a group and are then forced to recoup the outlay via commission earned by directing travelers to specific, often expensive, stores where pressured buying is the norm.

According to The Paper, an online news portal in Shanghai, many travel companies have now abandoned the senior travel market.

Yu Changjiang, from the China Silver Industry Association, said the mindsets of senior tourists will have to change if the situation is to be resolved. "They need to understand that tourism is about purchasing services and enjoying the whole experience. They need to avoid group tours that cost nothing or very little. That could help to standardize market practices."

Things may be about to change, though, and senior tourists are likely to become more powerful as a result of growing demand. Ctrip said seniors, not younger people, would be the main force behind group travel in the future.

New driving force
A family visits a garden in Bozhou, Anhui province, in autumn 2014.

"Group travel only suits seniors or those traveling for the first time" said Dun Jidong, Ctrip's senior sales manager. "In the past few years, we've seen a trend whereby more people are willing to plan their trips themselves. We don't think too many young tourists will rely on group travel in the future."

Dun also said many senior travelers have been influenced by their children. "Outbound tourism isn't a big deal right now, but as soon as offices are opened, so more people can obtain foreign visas in their own cities rather than having to travel to get them, many seniors will book trips with the aid of their children," he said, adding that the market will expand massively in the next two years.

Statistics from Ctrip show that many routes-such as Taiwan, tropical islands and trips to European countries such as France, Italy and Switzerland-are becoming classic choices for seniors.

Unlike travel agencies that seniors directly, Ctrip started has started to push for growth via their children. "Chinese children are willing to spend money on their parents," Dun said. "After the tragic Eastern Star accident on the Yangtze River, many children are concerned about their parents' safety on trips. And for our senior-tailored tours, safety and comfort are the priorities."

Ctrip said the adoption of the guidelines has resulted in its seniors' trips costing about 10 per cent more than those for younger clients, but many older customers are willing to pay extra to ensure peace of mind.

Zhang Guangrui, honorary director of the Tourism Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the current situation isn't just a problem for cash-conscious elderly people, but for the industry as a whole.

"Right now, more leading travel service providers should be introducing real, tailored services for seniors," he said.

"We can't just say senior travelers only want bargains or 'cheap and nasty' trips. Currently there are not that many tailor-made services for seniors, so if they have to spend too much and we provide products that are only appropriate for young people, they won't buy them."

Authorities drafting new standards for senior groups

The China Association of Travel Services is working on guidelines for the industry that will focus on services, safety and healthcare for senior tourists. The standard, which is being drafted, will require travel products to suit the psychological and physiological characteristics of older travelers.

Operators will be issued detailed mandatory rules, such as ensuring that schedules aren't too cramped and bedtimes are early, and arranging for the provision of a balanced, healthy menu.

Peng Zhikai, head of the Supervision and Management Division of the China National Tourism Administration, said the guideline is still at an early stage and no date has been set for its public release.

Some local tourism authorities have already introduced their own guidelines. For example, Shanghai issued travel agencies detailed rules for senior tourists in 2011.

Ctrip, a leading online travel agency in Shanghai, has also formulated its own guidance for seniors traveling in groups. "For example, we have a limit on the duration of journeys.

"Health concerns mean senior tourists should not be exposed to excessive periods of travel," said Dun Jidong, senior sales manager at Ctrip. "The tour guides must be senior employees with high ratings from tourist reviews and they need to be qualified to provide emergency assistance."

Dun said the company provides tailored services for senior groups, including providing opportunities for regular contact with their families during trips.

Zhang Guangrui, honorary director of the Tourism Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China has never before had a national industry standard that focused on the needs of specific groups.

"Certain groups, such as the elderly and children, didn't account for the majority of tourists before, so there are not many tailored travel products for them," he said. "Chinese society has begun to get older, so a larger number of elderly tourists have flooded into the market, and they demand age-appropriate services."

However, Zhang said improvements should be driven by the market, rather than industry-specific rules. "The issues facing the senior tourism market are not special. They reflect the fact that all tourist agencies need to upgrade their services."