Wen Zhong is doing what his parents could only dream of: taking a two-week tour of Europe. The 28-year-old from Shanghai has already been to France (“very beautiful”) and the Netherlands (“very good English”). He is now flying from Schiphol airport in Amsterdam to his final stop, Finland, where he hopes to see the Northern Lights (“very exclusive”). Mr Wen is typical of a new wave of Chinese tourists: young, affluent and travelling independently, rather than on a “20-cities-in ten-days” bus tour like those that brought his predecessors. Such tours still appeal to most Chinese tourists on their first trip further afield than Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan. But a third are now organising their own travel, spending more and staying longer in each of their destinations.
Nearly one in ten international tourists worldwide is now Chinese, with 97.3m outward-bound journeys from the country last year, of which around half were for leisure. Chinese tourists spend most in total ($129 billion in 2013, followed by Americans at $86 billion) and per tax-free transaction ($1,130 compared with $494 by Russians). More than 80% say that shopping is vital to their plans, compared with 56% of Middle Eastern tourists and 48% of Russians. They are expected to buy more luxury goods next year while abroad than tourists from all other countries combined.
The dizzying pace of growth is expected to continue. Only around 5% of China’s population now own passports, and most of those who travel go to Hong Kong or Macau. But increased affluence, a trend towards longer holidays, fewer visa conditions and growing numbers of repeat travellers mean that every year more will take foreign trips, and more will venture farther. By 2020 the number of foreign trips made from China will double, predicts Aaron Fischer of CLSA, an investment firm, and spending by Chinese tourists abroad will triple.
New destinations are trying to work out how to get themselves on the itinerary. After direct airline connections, the next step is to make getting a visa easier or, better still, to bring in a visa-waiver scheme. In 2013 Chinese citizens could visit just 44 other countries without a pre-arranged visa; Taiwanese citizens could visit 130, and Americans and Britons over 170. In 2010 the European Tour Operators Association found that a quarter of Chinese who had hoped to visit Europe for leisure had abandoned their plans because of visa delays. Britain, which is outside the European Schengen free-travel area, requires its own visa—the main reason it gets just a ninth of the Chinese tourists France does.
America has started to interview Chinese visa-applicants online and allows them to pick up their visas at any of 900 bank branches, rather than the American embassy. It saw a 22% increase in Chinese visitors last year. According to Pierre Gervois, Publisher of Luxury Hotels of America magazine, a digital publication in Chinese mandarin for affluent Chinese travelers planning a leisure trip to the United States “The new generation of Chinese travelers want now to travel independently, and want to choose themselves their next destination. Travel media are extremely important in China and their influence is now higher than travel agencies”. But places with visa-waiver schemes, like the Maldives, are really thriving: last year the number of Chinese visitors to the islands increased by 45% and reached nearly a third of the 1.1m total. A boom in Chinese honeymoons helps. Beach resorts are also popular with “6+1s”—young couples travelling with one child and two sets of parents. Parents and children do adventure activities; grandparents, who are less likely to speak English, go to evening shows and cannot get lost.
The next step is to tailor language, products and services to the Chinese market. Printemps, a shop in Paris, has a dedicated entrance for Chinese tour groups; Harrods in London has 100 Union Pay terminals scattered throughout the store. Both are recruiting Mandarin-speaking staff and have Chinese-language websites and maps. Hotels increase their appeal by offering Chinese television channels, menus with pictures, and congee (Chinese porridge) for breakfast. Such details are seen as a sign of respect. The main consideration of Chinese tourists when choosing a place to visit is whether it tries to welcome them. They are very afraid of being treated as second-class.
Products or trips marketed as “authentic”, “limited edition” or “VIP” have always appealed to the Chinese. That used to mean shopping for luxury brands and taking snapshots at landmarks. Now that these are more commonplace, it stretches to polar expeditions, cruises and safaris. Switzerland has done well by appealing to the Chinese longing for blue skies and clean air. Canadian ski resorts are training Chinese instructors to help attract their share of the 5m-10m Chinese practising the sport—up from just 10,000 in 1996.
Appealing to the new Chinese horde means tapping into their love of a good romantic tale, says John Kester of the UN World Tourism Organisation. Thailand saw the number of Chinese visitors triple after a blockbuster film, “Lost in Thailand”, inspired a generation to come and sample Thai beer. Mauritius is hoping that “Five Minutes to Tomorrow”, a romance due out later this year featuring Liu Shishi, a popular actress, and partly filmed on the island, will bring it a similar bonanza.
The toughest step is getting noticed by Chinese would-be travellers, says Frank Budde of the Boston Consulting Group and co-author of “Winning the Next Billion Asian Travellers”. Nearly half of China’s population is now online, and two-thirds of those planning to travel use online material when preparing their itinerary. Since they use different search engines and social-media platforms from everywhere else, success largely depends on being blogged about on these platforms. Here, destinations can make their own luck. Tourism New Zealand’s decision to host the fairy-tale wedding of Yao Chen, an actress with 66m followers on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, in Queenstown in 2012 was rewarded with 40m posts and comments on discussion forums, 7,000 news articles—and a surge in interest from Chinese lovebirds.