A revolution in China's outbound tourism
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2024-02-07  ·   Source: NO.7-8 FEBRUARY 15, 2024
Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin (fourth left, front row) welcomes Chinese tourists at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, on September 25, 2023 (XINHUA)

Liu Lixia's anticipation for the Spring Festival holiday, from February 10 to 17 this year, took an exciting turn on January 25, when Singapore announced the introduction of a visa-free policy for Chinese tourists, set to commence on February 9, coinciding with Chinese New Year's Eve.

The 49-year-old Beijing housewife had initially planned a family trip to Sanya City, located in China's southernmost Hainan Province, with her husband and two daughters. "However, the airfare from Beijing to Sanya was very high for the holiday season, given its popularity as a winter destination," she told Beijing Review. "Singapore emerged as an attractive alternative, thanks to its visa-free policy and shared Spring Festival traditions."

The announcement of the visa-free policy significantly boosted interest in Singaporean travel offerings. According to data from the online travel agency Fliggy, searches for flights to Singapore soared 15-fold and hotel inquiries increased more than six times within an hour of the policy's disclosure. By 4 p.m. on January 25, bookings for the Spring Festival holiday in Singapore had increased over 30-fold from the previous year, revealing a robust and sustained interest.

This enthusiasm wasn't limited to Singapore. Malaysia and Thailand also saw a surge in interest from Chinese tourists after Malaysia's visa-free policy for Chinese visitors took effect on December 1, 2023, and Thailand's introduction of a temporary visa-free policy effective from September 25, 2023 to February 29, 2024. Starting on March 1, Thailand and China will implement a mutual, permanent visa-free policy.

Recent figures from leading Chinese travel platform confirm this trend, showing that Chinese tourists' bookings for Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand for the Spring Festival period have increased more than 15 times compared with last year, marking a significant uptick in travel interest across these destinations.

Evolving preferences

Liu highlighted how visa-free policies ease the burden of complex visa application processes for tourists. "Before the pandemic, our family traditionally traveled abroad for the Spring Festival," she said. "The necessity of applying for visas often led us to opt for destinations further afield, like Europe. Now, countries offering visa-free access are more appealing to us."

In Thailand, which began offering visas on arrival to Chinese tourists about a decade ago, the lengthy queues of inbound visitors often make the process exhausting. To bypass this inconvenience, some travelers still prefer securing their visa before departure.

Before the pandemic, Liu's family allocated around 50,000 yuan ($7,000) for their Spring Festival travel, visiting more distant destinations such as Europe and Australia. "Now, I don't find it worthwhile [to travel that far] for a week-long holiday, especially when the first few days are spent adjusting to jet lag, leaving only a few days to truly enjoy the trip. Destinations closer to China have become more appealing to me for the Spring Festival holiday."

According to an online poll by China's Global Times newspaper that garnered nearly 25,000 responses, this year's top three overseas destinations are the Republic of Maldives, Singapore and Thailand, all offering Chinese tourists friendly visa policies.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed on January 31 that China had inked mutual visa exemption agreements covering different types of passports with 157 countries, reached agreements or arrangements on simplified visa procedures with 44 countries and enjoyed comprehensive mutual visa exemptions with 23 countries, including Thailand, Singapore, the Republic of Maldives and the United Arab Emirates. China will expand the visa-free policy to cover citizens of more countries and seek to increase the number of its mutual visa exemption agreements.

Innovation and recovery

Huang Qiuyue, a travel agency manager in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, noticed other emerging hot destinations for Spring Festival holidays along with the popularity of Southeast Asia. "Northern Europe and New Zealand are gaining popularity among those with longer holiday periods," she told Hangzhou Daily.

Finland and Iceland have become notable for in-depth tourism experiences in Northern Europe, with the average expenditure per tourist ranging from 30,000 ($4,000) to 60,000 yuan ($8,300). A Hangzhou resident surnamed Chen shared her excitement about an upcoming 11-day trip to Finland and Iceland, a dream of viewing the aurora borealis deferred by the pandemic that is now coming true.

Tailored travel packages to New Zealand for Chinese tourists were fully booked by last December, with prices per person ranging from 30,000 to 40,000 yuan ($5,500). "Before the pandemic, these packages primarily attracted senior tourists," Huang said. "Now, we're seeing a surge in younger travelers, including newlyweds on their honeymoon."

You Lijun, a travel agency manager in Shandong Province revealed that these shifts indicate a broader change in the travel habits of Chinese tourists—from flocking to popular and familiar tourism hotspots to exploring niche destinations.

As the tourism industry navigates its recovery process, comparisons with the pre-pandemic year of 2019 are inevitable. "But such direct comparison fails to adequately take into account the context," You told Shandong Daily, pointing out that the number of flights operational in 2023 still lagged behind the 2019 levels.

A beacon of hope for the outbound travel sector in 2024 is the swift resurgence of international flights. Data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China illustrate a remarkable rebound: from fewer than 500 weekly international flights at the start of 2023 to over 4,600 by the year end. The revival of passenger services between China and Europe has reached more than 60 percent of its pre-pandemic capacity. The momentum is expected to continue through 2024, with forecasts predicting the availability of around 6,000 weekly flights, approximately 80 percent of the pre-pandemic service volume.

In 2023, Chinese tourists were ranked sixth in terms of visitor numbers to the UK, according to information from Visit Britain, the official website for UK tourism. This was a notable drop from their pre-pandemic status as the second-largest demographic in the UK's inbound tourism market.

But it is important to note that China only included the UK in the third batch of destinations for the resumption of outbound group travel in mid-August 2023. This decision left the UK with merely four months to receive tour groups from China last year, yet the annual expenditure by Chinese tourists in the UK still managed to reach about half of the pre-pandemic levels—bearing testament to the resilience and potential for recovery within the tourism sector.

Compared with the domestic tourism boom in China, the rebound in outbound travels is still weak. At a tourism forum on December 15, 2023, Chen Gang, a tourism professional with over a decade of experience in the industry, spoke of the evolving landscape of traveler demands. "The diverse needs of travelers necessitate a broad spectrum of travel products, both within domestic and international markets. This diversity will define the tourism market trend for the next decade," he said.

He further stressed the critical need for adaptability among travel operators. "To stay relevant, travel operators must pivot according to these shifting consumer preferences," he said. "The way forward is through embracing and catering to the ever-changing desires of travelers with innovation."

(Print Edition Title: Beyond Borders)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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