Across The Border

Goodbye tour buses and loud hailers: Chinese tourists now choosing the more personal approach

90 per cent opt to travel independently, with outbound tourism by elderly Chinese growing by huge 217pc, says new Citi report

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 10:50am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 9:55pm

It’s a common sight in mainland China: a tour guide operator leading crowds of tourists through packed attractions, holding a colourful flag and a loud hailer.

But mass tour groups are becoming less popular for domestic tourists, as demand continues to grow for more personalised trips, according to a Citi report.

It’s certainly no secret that Chinese tourism is booming, with the Middle Kingdom ranking first in the world for tourist spending both domestically and internationally.

And as disposable incomes grow and consumers get more destinations under their belts, Chinese travellers are tending to move towards customised experiences.

Over nine out of 10 domestic tourists last year opted to travel independently, rather than taking a tour, a proportion that has been slowly moving upwards, the Citi report by analyst Lydia Ling found.

“Chinese travel has entered a stage of leisure travel, from sightseeing travel,” Ling said.

“Standardised group tours cannot satisfy rising demand for depth, personalisation and local experiences by increasingly experienced Chinese travellers.”

Chinese people in their 20s, and those over 50, have been the key drivers behind China’s booming tourism sector, Citi found, with a 14 per cent compound annual growth rate for domestic tourist numbers and a 17 per cent growth rate for outbound.

Outbound tourism by elderly Chinese grew by a whopping 217 per cent last year, faster than domestic tourism’s 95 per cent

Mainlanders now make an average of three trips a year, and by 2020 that number is forecast to grow to six.

Travellers were motivated by added freedom in how their time is managed and a desire for more in-depth experiences, and Ling said she expected the trend to increase, thanks to a wider range of customised products and as more become reasoned travellers.

But the individualised travel trend doesn’t mean tourists want to make things difficult for themselves. Instead, there’s a rising preference for one-stop-shop platforms such as Ctrip that can help travellers book flights, choose hotels, and arrange local transport.

It’s a different story for international tourists, where just under 40 per cent of outbound travellers to places other than Hong Kong or Macau travelled independently, the Citi report found.

Hunter Williams, a partner at management consultant Oliver Wyman, published a report entitled The Changing Face of the Chinese Traveller earlier this year, in which he said there was “no such thing as an archetypal Chinese traveller”.

Both groups are growing, and there’s still a nearly bottomless reservoir of first-time travellers in China
Hunter Williams, partner at management consultants, Oliver Wyman

The trend of people travelling independently overseas is growing - but so was the number of people travelling in a group, he told the South China Morning Post.

“Both groups are growing, and there’s still a nearly bottomless reservoir of first-time travellers in China,” Williams said, noting that those who hadn’t travelled before were more likely to opt for group travel.

Group travel internationally will continue to be a significant segment for a while yet, and he didn’t expect domestic group travel to disappear entirely.

A dissatisfaction with over-commercialised tours that promoted regular shopping stops, and the growing ease of doing your own travel research were two other reasons Chinese tourists might be opting to go it alone, he said.

“People always wanted to have those [more unique] experiences, now they’re more able to make it happen.”

Over 60 per cent of Chinese travellers put sightseeing as their top motivation, while fewer than 15 per cent citing shopping as the main reason for travelling - and companies that could fulfil those needs were likely to do better.

“The split between the group and independent travellers [overseas] is likely to remain fairly balanced as travellers gain experience and greater independence, at the same time as numerous newcomers begin travelling, often in groups,” Williams wrote in his report.

The study found independent foreign travellers tended to spend more and were more open to experience authentic local culture of their chosen destination, while group travellers stayed in lower budget venues tended to eat cheap Chinese meals.

The shift from “products to experiences” was also identified in an HSBC report from September which found that food and nature or hikes came in as top reasons to travel.

The trend is helping boutique luxury companies like Alila, which opened its first China property this year – an eco-friendly resort in rural Anji County in Zhejiang province, and has plans to open another six by the end of 2018, including one in Yangshuo, Guilin.

“We see more and more Chinese coming to our resorts,” said Doris Goh, chief marketing officer of Alila Hotels, which has resorts and hotels in Indonesia, India and Oman.

“I see a lot of Chinese going for experiential travel. They are also very discerning as well because they are very curious,” she said.

“People are really embracing the philosophy of commerce and conservation.”