In the first year of the new millennium, a modest 10.5 million overseas trips were made by Chinese residents. Fast forward to 2018 and the figure was 149.7 million – an astounding increase of 1326 per cent.
In less than two decades China has grown from travel minnows to the world's most powerful outbound market, leapfrogging the US – and leaving it in its wake. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) Chinese tourists overseas spent $US277.3 billion ($A394.85 billion) in 2018, up from around $US10 billion in the year 2000. Collectively, America's globetrotters parted with a relatively paltry $US144.2 billion.
Now consider this: just nine per cent of Chinese citizens – or 120 million people – possess a passport, compared to about 57 per cent of Australians, 40 per cent of Americans, and 76 per cent of Britons.
Clearly the potential for further growth – China's population is 1.42 billion – is staggering. The China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI) predicts that overseas trips by the country's residents will increase from last year's figure of 149.7 million to more than 400 million by 2030.
"That means that out of the 600 million additional trips in international tourism forecasted by UNWTO, bringing the total from 1.2 billion in 2017 to 1.8 billion by 2030, almost half of them will originate in China," it says. The country will account for a quarter of international tourism.
International tourism expenditure by country
Total spending by tourists in 2018
- China $US277.3 billion
- US $US144.2 billion
- Germany $US94.2 billion
- UK $US75.8 billion
- France $US47.9 billion
- Australia $US36.8 billion
- Canada $US33.3 billion
- South Korea $US32 billion
- Italy $US30.1 billion
No wonder tourist boards are falling over themselves to woo the country's expanding army of middle-class travellers. VisitBritain's GREAT China Welcome campaign, for example, was launched in 2014. Hotels, tour operators and attractions are being urged to make themselves "China-ready" by providing information in Mandarin or Cantonese and adapting their products for the Chinese market and culture.
Where are Chinese tourists going?
Thailand is the most popular destination for Chinese tourists beyond Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
The figure of 149.7 million foreign trips is slightly misleading. That's because it includes journeys made to China's special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, as well as Taiwan (whose status is disputed but which is also considered part of "Greater China"). These three accounted for around 70 million "overseas" journeys made in 2018.
Many millions more enjoy regular domestic holidays. Sally Peck, a former resident of China, explains: "Big cities – Beijing and Shanghai top the destination wishlist – see so many domestic tourists on even ordinary weekends that major shopping streets have one-way pavements, with police directing foot traffic."
She adds: "Often domestic trips take patriotic inspiration: go to the Three Gorges Dam, a grim industrial site in one of the country's poorest regions, for example, and it's swarming with visitors. Intrepid young people head to the mountainous Yunnan province, which borders Burma, Laos and Vietnam, and is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the country."
Beyond Greater China, it is largely the economies of other Asian countries reaping the benefit of the rapid growth in outbound travel. Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Singapore are also among the top 10 destinations for Chinese tourists. The US and Italy complete the list.
It is therefore no surprise to discover that the rise of the Chinese traveller has coincided with a massive surge in total overseas arrivals in its surrounding countries.
Thailand, the top pick after Hong Kong and Macau, welcomed 38.3 million international tourists in 2018 – up from just 5.3 million in 1990 (an increase of 622 per cent). Japan received 31.2 million last year – up from 3.2 million in 1990 (up 875 per cent). And there were 15.5 million overseas visitors to Vietnam in 2018 – up from only 250,000 in 1990 (an increase of 6100 per cent). All of which illustrates the economic benefit of harnessing the Chinese market.
But Europe is increasingly feeling the financial benefit too. Arrivals from China doubled in eight European countries last year: Czech Republic, Denmark, Russia, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Serbia and Montenegro.
The curious destinations Chinese tourists love visiting
Those who make it to Europe have some peculiar towns and cities on their wishlist, too.
Trier, for example, is seen by around 150,000 Chinese travellers every year, making it the most sought-after German destination. Why? Because it is the birthplace of Karl Marx. Bicester Village is the second most visited UK attraction for Chinese tourists after Buckingham Palace. Montargis, a fairly innocuous French provincial town, welcomes score of visitors from the Far East because many future stars of China's Communist Party went there to study in the early part of the 20th century. Metzingen possesses Germany's answer to Bicester Village: Outletcity. And Bonn, the former West German capital, attracts thousands of Beethoven-obsessed Chinese every year.
The growth of Chinese airports
All those extra trips have necessitated the rapid expansion of the country's airports. Last year 10 of the world's 50 busiest airports, and three of the 10 busiest, were found in Greater China. Up from six and one, respectively, in 2010.
Guangzhou Baiyun, for example, is among the fastest growing hubs in the world. It handled 69.8m passengers last year, up from 12.8m in 2000.
And many more are coming. At estimated 66 new airports are being built or planned across China. Beijing New Airport, with seven runways capable of handling 72 million passengers, opens in September.
What are Chinese travellers like?
A recent European Commission report suggests that time is a "scarce resource for most Chinese", who subsequently "prefer attractions that make them travel efficiently". Those who visit Europe "most like its arts and culture, small cities and blue skies".
When it comes to spending, it adds: "Chinese prefer to economise on food, accommodation and transportation, but they become lavish when it comes to shopping."
Sally Peck reiterates this point: "When Chinese tourists come to Europe, they're determined to hit – and shop in –every major capital." The discounted fashion utopia of Bicester Village, remarkably, is as popular with Chinese visitors to Britain as Buckingham Palace.
Hidden gems aren't usually on their travel wishlists, says Peck: "From Big Ben in London to the vineyards of Bordeaux, for first-timers, especially, they're actively pursuing the beaten track."
When it comes to attire, "groups often wear US trucker-style hats or visors, proclaiming the name of their tour operator", and "there will often be impressive photographic equipment", she adds. "An alarming number of women on domestic trips will be wearing inappropriate shoes; it is typical, while climbing misty and muddy Buddhist mountains in Chinese provinces, to find women in elaborately shoulder-padded polyester dresses with ankle-high pop socks and high heels in even the warmest of conditions."
But for China's millennials, things are different. A recent Resonance report highlights how younger Chinese tourists are increasingly opting for independent adventures rather than package breaks to countries with Approved Destination Status.
"As they wander off the beaten path, Chinese travellers are also straying from well-worn patterns of consumption," the report says. "In an increasingly well-travelled and urban China, shopping loses some of its novelty for experienced travellers, and untamed nature calls. Scenic destinations that reward active travellers are finding favour". With Beijing soon to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, it predicts an upsurge of interest in cold-weather outdoor activities. Scandinavia, be prepared.
More generally, it claims that Chinese tourists are now more attracted to outdoor attractions rather than cities. "In the rush to urbanise, many Chinese have lost touch with the natural world," it says.
"When we asked Chinese travellers their most important considerations for choosing holiday destinations, safety was first, as it is with travellers around the world. But interestingly, quality of the natural environment/scenery is second, ahead of warm climate and even the iconic landmarks we associate with Chinese travel." The likes of Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada, aware of this shift, have now started showcasing their landscapes and national parks to the Chinese market instead of their urban areas, the report adds.
For traveller from China, the mobile is king. "Daily or occasionally, 91 per cent visit websites to research things to see and do; 89 per cent post online reviews of experiences; 89 per cent use travel guide apps; 88 per cent post photos on social media; 90 per cent make calls; 87 per cent hourly or daily chat with friends on WeChat," the Resonance report says. "Which makes us wonder: How long will it be before Chinese travellers demand destinations where they can completely unplug?"
The risks of overtourism
Given the huge growth in outbound trips, and the propensity of Chinese travellers to visit Europe's most famous cities and attractions, is overcrowding in cities like Venice, Barcelona and Dubrovnik about to become even more unbearable?
It is something Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of COTRI, has addressed.
He writes: "In 2012, the hashtag #overtourism appeared on Twitter for the first time. But only last year the deterioration of the quality of life of the citizens in European destinations as diverse as Venice, Barcelona, Passau, the Cinque Terre, and Dubrovnik was blamed on this new phenomenon.
Hundreds of journalistic articles were published and several conferences organized by UNWTO, WTTC and the WTM London discussed the growing number of – sometimes violent – protests by the inhabitants of destinations who feel to become dispossessed of their city under the simultaneous attack of increasing numbers of arrivals of 'normal' tourists, cruise ship passengers and Air billionB users. Chinese tourists feature of course also in this debates.
"Chinese are not only a part of the problem, but can also be a part of the solution. It is very hard to keep Chinese first-time visitors to Paris from going up on the Eiffel Tower, but as the number of Chinese repeat visitors is growing, these guests arrive with much less fixed ideas what is the 'must-see' location and the 'normal' time to visit. Many destinations represent a white sheet of paper for Chinese visitors, by creating attractions adapted to the needs of the Chinese source market temporal and spatial dispersion is possible."
The Telegraph, London