Chinese entrepreneur cashes in on nouveau riche's wanderlust with one-off itineries

Entrepreneur believes he's on a winner with his tailor-made trips that offer the world on a plate

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 4:27am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 4:27am

Chinese tourists spent US$102 billion overseas last year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. The mainland is the world's fastest-growing tourist market. One man hoping to cash in is Cai Mingdong from Ningbo, Zhejiang province. Cai, 36, used to be a financial journalist but now has a company that runs tailor-made trips for mainland tourists.

Tell us about your career before getting into tourism?

In the 1990s and early 2000s, every Chinese graduate thought studying at a famous overseas university was a great chance to see the world. After I graduated from Cardiff University's school of journalism in 2003 I came back to Ningbo and became a financial and property reporter. I interviewed many wealthy entrepreneurs and it was interesting to hear how they spent their money in their spare time. I built up my own import and export business in 2010 and got into the tourist sector in 2012 as I thought it would really develop.

Why and how did you start your business organising tailor-made trips overseas?

I travelled a lot across Europe and North Africa when studying in the UK between 2002 and 2003. I was struck that there were so few Chinese tourists there. I was always mistaken for somebody Japanese. In 2005, while I was making trips across Asian countries, I started to come across young Chinese backpackers.

In 2010, when I was on a driving trip in New Zealand, I saw many Chinese tour groups. While I was having a break at a tourist attraction in New Zealand I was surrounded by dozens of tourists. They were really interested in my car trip, thinking it was much more interesting and adventurous than the organised trip they were on. Some even wanted to quit the tour group and join me. I suddenly thought I had found a way to sail into a "blue oceans'' market. People in China are getting rich and an overseas trip is an easy way for them to enjoy their wealth and happiness, but they are usually limited to a few boring tour routes. Also, the value of the renminbi was continuously rising and inflation was soaring. Increasingly, Chinese people in the cities think spending money on a trip and shopping overseas is a good deal. I knew it was the perfect time to start my business.

What is the current state of the foreign travel market on the mainland? Do you see much room for growth?

The statistics show the tourism industry is booming. The authorities estimate an unprecedented 100 million outbound trips will be undertaken this year. And rich people in China are becoming the world's main force in luxury goods consumption. We offered seven tailor-made trips last year, attracting over 100 people, mostly from cities across the Yangtze delta, who spent a total of more than three million yuan (HK$3.8 million) on their holidays. In the first month of this year we already have enough clients for nine trips to Europe, South America, North America and Australasia. I think tourism will remain strong as long as the renminbi is stable or rising.

Who on the mainland is making these trips overseas?

Of course, the customers are rich. Most of my clients have an average yearly income of 300,000 yuan. The key driver for these people in making these trips is they want to have a better quality of life. Also, a tailor-made trip is a symbol showing their wealth and social status. Geographically, all middle-class urban people in Beijing and the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas are our customers.

What kind of trips do you design and provide?

In the past, tourists from China had to be in a tour group when they went overseas and they were usually taken to free tourist attractions and shopping malls. Now many countries have relaxed the visa rules. That makes it possible to plan tailor-made trips to see different places and meet local people.

Every trip I offer is well designed and planned under a special theme, such as a summer camp to play at the Kobe Bryant basketball academy in the United States, a camping and driving trip in New Zealand, a tour to see art and history museums in Europe or a tour to investigate America's property market.

We take care of everything - applying for a visa, renting vehicles, contacting local property agents and universities. After landing at an airport, instead of being sent to attractions only for tourists, my clients can immediately enjoy driving downtown, shopping at a local market, cooking in their own apartment, jogging at a local park, or camping in a forest. All clients are satisfied with our trips. They all say they want to travel in a developed country and to live as richly and colourfully as a local.

What difficulties do you face?

It's the extreme shortage of qualified professional people to guide tourists to see the real world, rather than sending them to hotels and malls in a coach. People here are getting richer and are eager to see the outside world.

The only problem is they need someone to show them where is interesting and where best to spend their money. But it's hard to find a guide or a planner who understands both China and societies overseas, as well as having the skills and the sense needed to take care of any emergencies.