A Chinese tourism company is pairing with governments around the world to facilitate the booming demand for running holidays by mainland sports fans.
“The Chinese running tourism market will keep growing for the next 20 years,” said Du Mingrui, his hand drawing the steeply rising curve of an imaginary graph. “Our company, we need more staff, more of everything.”
The company that Du founded in 2015 together with Angela He Yaqing, is called ZX Tour.
Angela, who ran her first marathon in 2012 and instantly became hooked, contributed the expertise from her original job – outbound VIP tourism – to their venture. Du used to hold an editorial position at the Chinese edition of Outside Magazine.
Based in Beijing, ZX Tour is now the domestic industry leader. Its office is crammed with staff, finisher medals and race bibs adorn every surface. Over 10,000 Chinese runners per year use its services to travel and run abroad.
“In China, government decides everything. If you do not have very good connections there, you will not be able to organise and finance a running event. We had no such connections,” Du said. “So, we decided to start something to focus directly on the runners.”
ZX Tour is focusing on the 100,000-plus strong cohort of Chinese runners who are willing to pay to travel abroad to run. The company has over 150 races on offer. The more adventurous runners can purchase bibs for the World Marathon Challenge or Everest Marathon.
Government tourism bodies – in countries as diverse as Thailand, Czech Republic and even North Korea, have now realised the potential of Chinese running tourism and are partnering up with ZX Tour.
“The Thai Tourism Office started pushing the Chiang Mai Marathon three years ago in China. They are working with us very closely. We bring several hundred runners every year. It used to be a very small race, now it is booming. Most runners are Chinese,” said Du.
Races in Asia are an easy sell: “First, the Chinese know about those places. Second, it is close. Third, it is cheap to travel,” Du said. “The Seoul International Marathon, Angkor Wat Marathon, SingaporeMarathon and Nagoya Women’s Marathon are very popular.”
World Marathon Majors – Tokyo, London, New York, Boston, Chicago and Berlin – are the established best sellers, but “Chinese runners also want a special race”, Du said.
“There are several ways to define ‘special’,” Du said. “The wine marathon, the Marathon du Medoc in France, is really special. Then Everest Marathon in Nepal – there is only one Mount Everest. Then there are destinations which are special, such as Afghanistan.”
Du gets excited talking about Bamiyan Marathon in war-torn Afghanistan. “There is a long waiting list. Only 20 places for foreign runners. The package is US$4,000, excluding flights.”
The company does not over-rely on one particular market segment such as luxury races, budget destinations, or the purchase of bibs for independent travel. “We have a very even spread – each part of our business contributes about 5 per cent.”
With a penchant for mid-race selfies, do Chinese runners travel to locations like Pyongyang to post their race photos on WeChat, ? Maybe, but that is changing, Du said. “Now many of our runners do not post anything. They want to enjoy their experience, not to show off.”
Patriotism and nostalgia are another reason the Chinese like to travel to North Korea and run the Pyongyang Marathon.
Chinese volunteers who fought in the Korean war are remembered and venerated, especially by older generations of Chinese. Runners, including some who lost relatives in the conflict, honour wartime monuments and the graves of their fallen countrymen.
Du is constantly on the search for new races – his latest find is Kanchenjunga Marathon in Sikkim, Indian Himalaya. The event is in November, held near the world’s third highest peak at altitudes of over 5,000 metres.
What is the future trend of the demand from Chinese runner-tourists? “Adventurous events – multi-day races,” Du said.
This fits into the greater trend of Chinese outbound travel as fitness, outdoor skills and worldly awareness of the Chinese general public.
“Adventure tourism, of every kind, is the next big thing,” Du said. “Mountaineering, skiing ... even things like hunting ... Chinese want and will want more of everything.”