Photos of the Great Wall of China covered in tourists as thick as ants on a forgotten picnic treat often causes laughter over the plight of the domestic Chinese tourist. There’s a feeling that this is an isolated incident strictly within the borders of the Middle Kingdom. But this is no longer the case. Outbound tourism from China to international destinations is increasing at a speed as turbo-charged as that of its economy, and they are a force to be reckoned with.
And this reckoning is far from a bad thing. With tourist dollars an essential part of many economies, the Chinese tourist is something to be coveted, especially as they now outspend Americans and Germans as the world’s “most exuberant tourism spenders” with a record $102 billion spent last year alone. According to the Wall Street Journal, “more than 83 million Chinese traveled overseas in 2012,” with the UN World Tourism Organization predicting that Chinese nationals traveling abroad “will reach 100 million by 2015,” these numbers are very real, and could potentially be very beneficial.
But in order for this to be beneficial, tourist industries and communities as a whole need to embrace the Chinese tourist and learn how to cater to their needs so as to make a bigger profit. During the recent Golden Week at the beginning of October for the Chinese National Day Holiday, the Chinese arrived in herds at tourist sites the world over. But they aren’t just taking group photos and seeing the sites, they’re also shopping. And wow they do shop.
Recently at an Oxford Street The Body Shop in London’s poshest shopping district, a group of Chinese tourists were buying basketfuls of a variety of lotions and creams. When interviewed, a Miss Li from Shenyang admitted that she was happy to spend so much money (the bill came out to approximately a third of her month’s wages) because these gifts were unique and unable to be purchased in China. Certainly creating an exclusive and location-based product is a great way to reel in those renminbi, its also important to understand the different types of Chinese tourist.
BUSINESS — The Chinese business tourist is a growing group, as many Chinese entrepreneurs are looking to learn new skills and expand their businesses outside of China. These tourists come either as groups to a conference, investment research trips, or as individuals with specific goals in mind. As visa restrictions ease for this type of tourist, this means more and more are traveling in smaller groups. These smaller groups, while allowing for more freedom of movement, also leave more opportunity for miscommunication and misadventure.
Mr. Qin, who recently traveled to New York on business, was disappointed that his hotel did not have any information on their menu in Chinese, and ended up going across town to eat low-end Chinese food at exuberant prices. He would much rather have stayed at the hotel and enjoyed a drink at the bar, but with his lack of English skills he felt it was easiest to go the Chinese route.
These tourists are also usually very big spenders. With gifts to purchase for various contacts, family and friends, these shoppers tend to stick to well-known big-name brands like LV, Chanel and the like. One Nanjing businessman rather frankly admitted that he went to LV to purchase the necessary handbags for his wife and his mistress respectively .
While most business tourists are not traveling purely for pleasure, there is more and more interest in experiencing more of the world on their travels, so more Chinese language informational materials would be a boon for any hotels, restaurants or shopping areas that would care to use them. With several luxury travel magazines already available in Chinese Mandarin, such as the Shanghai Travelers’ Club magazine, an iPad magazine for the wealthy members of the super-elitist Shanghai Travelers’ Club, Chinese businessmen have a greater knowledge of the sophisticated boutique hotels and little known luxury brands.
STUDENT — Traditionally overlooked as poor and uninterested, the Chinese students overseas are increasingly at the higher end of the pay scale. With Confucian custom combined with the single-child policy, parents with even a meager affluence will dote extensively on their children, especially when they are in college. Kyle, An MBA student from Shanghai studying in London commented that he spends around $5,000 per month on living expenses alone.
The rise of the wealthy Chinese overseas student has obviously been noticed by schools the world over, with specialized language-learning courses available at many institutions. Amongst the “student” group is also included the executive training programs that work either independently or with such venerable institutions as the Harvard Business School. While some would argue that these courses water down the brand, it has not yet affected the many millions that Chinese are willing to spend on these courses.
ADVENTURE — A new and growing sector of Chinese tourist is the young backpacker or sports adventurer. Scuba diving, mountain climbing and hiking are all growing areas, and as Xiao Fan, a scuba enthusiast from Beijing says, “these are a great way to travel with a group but experience things that are more personal than simple tourist destinations.” Famed backpacker Mr. Gao from Beijing also points out the rising number of people interested in individual travel, though these tourists tend to head to Southeast Asia and Africa, where the cost is significantly cheaper.
The increasing convenience and accessibility of international travel has lead to more individuals setting off on their own, and even the poorest amongst them, Mr. Gao remarks, is willing to spend $1,500 – $3,000 on shopping alone. What they save by traveling on the cheap they then put towards the purchase of items they don’t have access to in China.
DANWEI — The word for “work unit” in Chinese, the danwei system of China’s yesteryear has transferred itself into the more modern forms of corporate culture quite neatly. A danwei-organized overseas trip is a treat not just because it is traveling on the company’s dime, but also because it guarantees easy visa access. More importantly, its a way to kills two birds with one stone: making the boss and the company look good while also getting a chance to go out and see the world. It is important to note that these tourists often get these travel opportunities as a reward for previous achievements and company loyalty.
More importantly, these tourists are more willing to part with their cash as they aren’t paying for their every day expenses. A quick survey of recent danwei travelers resulted in an average of $6,000-$10,000 per trip. This is a large number considering that the average white collar salary is around $1,000/month. But as many consider these danwei trips to be their only opportunity to travel overseas, they are willing to spend more.
LOCUST — And finally, the infamous group tourist, shuffling around 10 cities in 5 days, rampaging through tourist site to tourist site, doing the requisite “selfie” in front of various monuments and then moving on. And don’t forget about the forced shopping that is an intrinsic part of these tourism schemes. These types of tours are the main target of the new tourism laws in China, and admittedly the tour organizers are more to blame than the tourists themselves.
A quick search on Sina’s weibo.com for the slogan “cultured tourism” results highlight more examples of the negative than the positive, with the exception of of various tourism bureau accounts, and this in part could be blamed on the lack of individual responsibility in group tourism. (That and the one child policy creating a generation of parents who can’t control their children — see painful images of children running amuck on famous and obviously poorly protected stonework at the Forbidden City.)
Traditionally, international tourism for Chinese citizens relied heavily on group tours, in part due to visa restrictions, in part due to the general fear that many had of the strangeness of the non-Chinese world. And while these horrid group tours are still the majority of international tours, there’s a growing trend of the more discerning tourist.
But with Xinhua predicting that China will become the largest tourist market for the U.S. by 2018, these aren’t numbers to ignore. Sure, its easy to poke fun at the recent 64-page pamphlet created by the Chinese Tourism Ministry using a somewhat patronizing tone to guide Chinese tourists how to be more “culturally aware,” but this effort is admirable. As many surveys still point to the British or American tourist as being the most poorly behaved, perhaps the English-speaking world should take a page out of this Chinese book, a Dick and Jane Go Overseas series maybe?
Whether a humble group tourist from a third tier city or an executive looking to invest in overseas projects, the Chinese tourist is willing to spend, and spend big. What the world needs to do now is better prepare themselves for this new breed of tourist, perhaps starting with the phrase: 欢迎光临 huanying guanlin (“Welcome!” in Mandarin).