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21 Mar 2014

The changing face of Chinese tourism

Richard Li

by Richard Li

Head of Retail Banking and Wealth Management, HSBC Bank China

The changing face of Chinese tourism

By 2020, more than 200 million Chinese a year could be travelling overseas

Tourism is as significant to the global economy as food and cars. And, like so many other industries, it has been profoundly affected by China’s rapid economic rise. With the world’s second largest economy predicted to expand by nearly 7.5 per cent this year, China’s influence on world tourism is likely to be stronger than ever in 2014.

Nearly 100 million Chinese people travelled abroad last year, up from 12 million in 2001*. More international travellers now come from China than from any other country. Chinese tourists are also the world’s biggest spenders, shelling out USD102 billion on overseas travel in 2012, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organization. 

The expected growth in Chinese traveller numbers represents a significant opportunity for overseas destinations

Despite the rapid increase in tourists, Chinese citizens are still ten times less likely to travel than people from the UK or Germany, suggesting potential for further growth. With average incomes in China continuing to rise, HSBC Global Research forecasts that China’s average annual spending on recreation and culture, including package holidays, will grow by 7.8 per cent through to 2050. Chinese tourists could number 130 million by 2015 and more than 200 million in 2020, our economists believe. 

Since rules were relaxed in the 1990s to make travel for leisure easier, many Chinese tourists have travelled in organised groups. Set itineraries give pre-determined places to sleep, to eat and even to shop. Holidaymakers pay in advance, and so have limited need for cash.

But today, as Chinese citizens grow more familiar with foreign travel, increasing numbers are likely to organise their own itineraries. A broader range of ages will choose to travel, with more retired people and children going abroad for the first time.

Greater choice may also drive increased demand for specialised breaks. Hiking, golf, adventure sports, open-water swimming, gastronomic tours or visits to the filming locations of hit foreign films and TV programmes may begin to increase in popularity alongside traditional vacations focused on sightseeing and shopping.

The expected growth in Chinese traveller numbers represents a significant opportunity for overseas destinations. Around 11 per cent of Chinese travellers spend more than USD10,000 (excluding flights) per trip, according to research commissioned by the Hurun Report, a Shanghai-based publication which focuses on the lifestyles of wealthy individuals.

Although tourists are travelling primarily for leisure, it can also be good for business relations. Experiencing the cultures and customs of other countries first hand can help entrepreneurs understand new markets and build rapport with potential business partners.

The most popular overseas destinations for China’s tourists are other Asian countries including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. Places further afield, however, are trying to attract some of this business.

In 2014, the UK will launch China Welcome, with tourist sites such as the Roman Baths translating websites and providing Mandarin-speaking staff. The German National Tourist Board’s Beijing office advertises attractions such as Oktoberfest and cultural events related to Wagner and the Brothers Grimm. 

Australia sees China as its most valuable tourist market, promoting “culturally relevant” products including city breaks and nature tours.

The number of Chinese citizens travelling abroad is likely to increase. But exactly where they choose to go, and what they choose to do, is yet to be seen – and could have a decisive influence on the future of the tourism industry. 

*According to statistics from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

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