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Luxury Hotels

Boutique hotels provide much needed escape for China’s urban leisure seekers

  • China’s urban residents looking for immersive experiences expected to grow to 250 million by 2020
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 7:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 7:21pm

When Ma Qionglin checked into Alila Anji in May, a tranquil resort set amid lush bamboo forests and tea plantations in Huzhou, in Zhejiang province, she was awestruck.

“The isolated, hermit-like surroundings gave me the much-needed escape I craved from my daily hectic life,” the Shanghai native recalled about her stay.

Ma is among millions urban leisure seekers who are seeking experiential travel and immersive experiences and the number is growing rapidly, say industry observers.

“China’s urban residents are no longer content with the standard, run of the mill travel options,” said Wang Fei, national director of JLL Strategic Consulting in Beijing. “They crave ‘immersive experiences’.”

In immersion travel people focus on experiencing a particular place by connecting to its history, people and culture.

This is what Denver-based boutique hotel operator Two Roads Hospitality is hoping to achieve with the Alila Anji, which it started managing in 2016 – its first foray into China. The Anji resort is owned by a Malaysian businessman.

Here guests like Ma get to participate in harvesting tea and bamboo shoots among other activities like hiking and forest tours.

Since then Two Roads Hospitality has taken on two more boutique properties in Yangshuo, in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in 2017, and another in Wuzhen in Zhejiang province, which opened this month.

China’s expanding middle class with disposable income looking for such weekend getaways has spurred the growth in mid-scale and boutique hotels.

A report co-authored by JLL’s Wang predicts that by 2020 the number of urban leisure seekers in China, defined as those spending between US$20 to US$50 per day – excluding hotel expenses, will grow to 251 million in the top three metropolitan clusters – the Yangtze River Delta (comprising Shanghai-Hangzhou-Nanjing), Pearl River Delta (comprising Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong and many other cities) and Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.

These three clusters alone account for 46 per cent of the US$1.35 trillion domestic tourism market, the report added.

According to Meadin.com, a hospitality industry consultancy, although China’s boutique hotel sector has expanded rapidly in recent years, it accounted for less than 1 per cent of the total market as of 2017.

Doris Goh, chief marketing officer of Two Roads Hospitality Asia, said Alila provides urban residents with a “rarefied country experience”.

“We never show our rooms. There will always be better rooms. I want to bring to you fresh air, beautiful scenery and organic food,” she said, adding that she wants Alila to be known for providing “experiential”stays.

“An Alila hotel may not have crystal chandeliers or marble floors, but we work with the best architects to create a destination hotel befitting the environment,” she said.

Alila built the access road leading to the remote hill and the property.

A two-night stay for a family of three can cost up to 5,000 yuan (US$720), excluding fees for activities, according to Jack Widagdo, general manager of Alila Anji.

Meanwhile, Zhang Jiqiong, CEO of Wenlvbang, a firm providing tourism project planning for developers, said she had noticed a sizeable uptick in investors’ interest in China’s tourism sector this year.

“After the government imposed restrictions on developing properties in the name of ‘tourism’, investors have realised they have no option but to do genuine tourism projects,” she said. “The challenge now is to find patient investors who have operational expertise as these projects have a long investment cycle.”

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