China’s prolonged absence from global tourism could be impacting more than tourism revenues. Yet, geopolitics aside, Chinese consumer demand for long-haul travel is still alive and well, and it’s getting stronger.
It’s no secret that as tourism reopens gradually, amid stops and starts, the world’s top cities continue to reel from the absence of China’s lucrative outbound travel market — to the tune of 166 million trips abroad in 2019, as per Skift Research. China was the driver of global tourism’s growth pre-pandemic and one of the most valuable outbound source markets in the world.
Pre-pandemic, Chinese outbound tourism expenditure ranked first, reaching $277 billion total, or higher than the U.S. at $157 billion of outbound tourism expenditure, and Germany at $104 billion.
Even in the midst of a Covid pandemic, predictions had remained bullish on the return of Chinese tourists abroad. The China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI) forecast 100 million international trips from Chinese travellers in 2021, and 219 million trips by 2022.
Yet 17 months later, China remains largely closed to long-haul leisure travel, inbound and outbound, despite 75 countries that are now open to Chinese travellers. China’s ban on outbound vacation package sales remains in place, and domestic tourism has taken a recent hit due to the Delta variant, further making reopening uncertain.
Perhaps even more surprising is that the vaccine rollout in China hasn’t boosted confidence as much as it has in other places — over half of surveyed Chinese travellers said they were uncertain about long-haul leisure travel as of March 2021, and 68 percent said they were unsure of business travel, a sentiment survey by Chinese data and marketing agency Dragon Trail has shown.
The question remains, what does the unexpected prolonged absence of Chinese travellers overseas mean for global tourism, and for destinations in Southeast Asia, U.S., and Europe that once welcomed throngs of Chinese tourists? Are Chinese travellers’ preferences changing enough to impact the world’s largest source market?
While China’s reopening remains a matter of speculation, there are signs of pent-up demand as well as gradual movement in the restart of outbound Chinese travel, in what experts are seeing as a flicker of light in the tunnel.
For one, the Chinese travel appetite is only getting larger. For the first time since last year, the “sentiment around absolutely not traveling” has decreased since last year, Dragon Trail’s March 2021 survey shows. Almost a quarter of Chinese travellers also indicated they were eager to travel as soon as there was a chance, while 32 percent said they would travel cautiously and 39 percent would wait until it’s safe.
“We have seen the demand from Chinese; lots of people, especially the younger generation, really want to travel,” said Alina Xiang, CEO at East West Marketing, a digital tourism marketing firm specializing in China and India outbound travel markets.
“That’s why during the pandemic, cloud travel at home was a hot topic on Chinese social media — people exploring destinations through live streaming, through social media.”
It explains why Trip.com’s weekly live stream marketing campaigns have been hugely successful, selling more than $294 million in travel packages and hotels by October 2020.
There are also hints of China looking to reopen — ongoing China government discussions around a bubble with Singapore, according to Xiang, though the status of this remains unknown, and more recently, the U.S. Embassy in China reopening student visa applications as of May.
It’s a great sign of what’s to come, Xiang said about the student visa restart.
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