9 Things Businesses Need to Know About Chinese Tourists

Spring Festival, otherwise known as Chinese New Year, is known for having the largest human migration on the planet, as hundreds of millions of people head home to celebrate with family. But trips abroad during the holiday, celebrated over the past week, are also hugely popular.

That’s because discretionary income in China continues to grow, making it possible for Chinese consumers to visit any number of overseas destinations. Big Ben? The beaches of Thailand? New York City? All of these places are now within reach because they have more money to spend.

Consider this: Between 2012 and 2016, the total number of outbound travelers from China soared 47% to 122 million from 83.2 million, according to the China National Tourism Administration. And spending among this group in 2016 reached $261.1 billion, the United Nations World Tourism Organization reported. That’s more than any other country and double that of the U.S.’s $123.6 billion, which came in at number two.

With President Xi Jinping last year predicting that Chinese tourists will make 700 million trips by 2022—up from just 10 million in 2001—businesses looking to capitalize on the trend should know a few things about these potential customers.

Everyone Is Traveling

Business executives and government officials used to dominate overseas travel in China, but no longer. Now, leisure accounts for 50 percent of Chinese travel, says Alibaba’s online travel platform Fliggy. The wealthy, the middle class, the young, the old—everyone is heading abroad. 

In a 2016 McKinsey & Co. survey, Chinese consumers ranked the most likely ways they’d spend their money. The top three were food (46%), fashion (37%) and travel (23%), with travel showing the largest increase of any category since 2012.

Though They Rarely Travel Alone

The day of the Chinese group tour isn’t exactly over, but it certainly has changed. Rather than boarding buses with dozens of strangers and ticking off landmarks like a morning to-do list, Chinese consumers are more particular about who they travel with.

In a survey done by China Luxury Travel Advisors last May, 77% said they vacationed with a spouse or partner, 44% said it was other family or children and 24% said they ventured out with friends. How many chose to go it alone? Just 4%.

Practicality Is a Factor

When it comes to travel, Chinese tourists want to know one thing: Is it easy to get there? Which is why convenience is the top factor for them when deciding where to go. Indeed, it ranked ahead of cost, safety, friendliness of people and nature/scenery, according to a survey from the Luxury Association.

One point about cost: While what constitutes “expensive” depends on the traveler, Chinese consumers across the board focus heavily on the price of their flights. They are typically less price sensitive in choice of hotels and destinations as they increasingly seek out “experiences” (more on that below).

They’re Venturing Further

According to data from Hotels.com, 82 percent of trips taken by Chinese tourists are within the Asia Pacific region. But that figure is declining, down 14% year on year, while vacations to Europe, North America and South America are on the rise. That is no doubt driven by the fact that many travelers say they prefer to not visit the same destination twice, Hotels.com reported.

And Searching for Experiences

The allocation of Chinese consumers’ travel budgets to accommodation, food and entertainment has climbed 50 percent over the past three years, the Financial Times discovered. So Chinese tourists seem less concerned about budget travel.

In fact, as a part of an overall push for a better quality of life, they’re increasingly seeking out experiences over traditional tourism itineraries. So much so that this year, China overtook Australia as second-largest source of travelers to Antarctica. (The U.S. is number one.) Fliggy says dining and uniquely local things-to-do are among the most popular experiences sought out by Chinese travelers.

It’s All Happening Online

Chinese consumers’ predisposition toward the digital, whether e-commerce or mobile payments, is playing out in travel, too, as bookings of flights and hotels and car rentals take place through marketplaces such as Fliggy. China’s outbound tourists are also using Fliggy to apply for travel visas, and they use Alipay to purchases souvenirs and services while overseas. For businesses, that means partnering with a company like Alibaba, which owns these apps and marketplaces, could help them better target Chinese consumers.

Their Shopping and Leisure Preferences Are Changing

It’s true: Shopping is down to about a third of Chinese consumers’ total budget from 50 percent just a few years ago, the FT reported. That may seem like bad news to overseas businesses that have enjoyed high demand from this group, but it’s not. In fact, the number of travelers is increasing so quickly that the sheer volume of them is counteracting the decline in individual spending.

So what are they buying and where? Duty-free shops account for 30% of their cash outlay, while department stores account for 20%. Clothing, handbags and beauty products are still the most popular categories, but the demand for imported goods has Chinese tourists seeking out new or exclusive products not available in China or those aforementioned experiences.

Payments Are a Bigger Barrier Than Language

Mobile payments have caught on in China in ways they just haven’t in the U.S. and Europe. Cases in point: Sixty-five percent of mobile users in China use their phones as wallets, while Chinese spent $5.5 trillion using digital wallets in 2016—50 times more than the U.S., which is the world’s largest consumer market. It’s no surprise, then, that Chinese consumers said that payments were the area most in need of improvement in overseas markets, according to Hotels.com.

Chinese Apps Influence Consumption

Before even leaving on a vacation, Chinese consumers are using apps such as Fliggy to book flights, hotels and entertainment. While on the trip, they get relevant offers from apps like Alipay based on their geo-location and use Taobao to research purchases before buying. Once home, they continue to engage with the brands they discovered overseas, whether through Alipay, Taobao or Tmall.

Canada’s Summerhill Pyramid Winery has found a good way to engage these consumers both during and after their visit. Summerhill accepts Alipay at its vineyard in British Columbia, then ships the purchased wine through its distributor, which operates a Tmall Global store. This allows Summerhill to stay connected to its new customers once they’re back home in China.