Amid the post-pandemic recovery, China's tourism sector is rebounding with vigor in 2023. We discuss the resurgence of outbound and domestic travel, evolving traveler behavior, and tech-enabled trends in this article. From cultural exploration to wellness escapes and digital integration, the stage is set for foreign businesses and investors to seize opportunities in this transformed landscape.
After enduring the significant impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, China's tourism sector is gearing up for a strong resurgence in 2023. Projections indicate that the total revenue from domestic tourism is expected to exceed RMB 4 trillion (approximately US$580.96 billion), marking an impressive 96 percent growth. Several driving forces contribute to this revival in China’s tourism landscape, including:
- Easing of travel restrictions;
- Increase in disposable income among Chinese consumers; and
- Growing popularity of domestic tourism.
China's evolving tourism landscape
Insights from outbound tourism in H1 of 2023Both outbound and inbound tourism markets in the first half of 2023 have shown impressive vitality, surpassing the levels observed in the same period of 2019. Average expenditures for outbound travelers have exhibited a notable increase, with Hong Kong and Macao leading the resurgence of outbound tourism. The total number of inbound and outbound individuals has surged by approximately 170 percent.
Data from the World Tourism Alliance's reports, reveal that the outbound tourism sentiment index reached 28 percent in the first half of 2023, marking a 21-point increase from the same period in 2019. The outbound tourism market has displayed a gradual "U-shaped" recovery, emphasizing a steady resurgence rather than an abrupt rebound.
According to recent data from Alipay's Overseas Spending Platform, the average expenditure per user for outbound travel in the first half of 2023 grew by 24 percent compared to 2019. Among popular destinations, the top 10 outbound travel destinations in terms of transaction volume for the first half of 2023 were:
- Hong Kong;
- South Korea;
- United Kingdom; and
Starting from February 20, 2023, mainland cities within the Greater Bay Area initiated a pilot implementation of visa endorsements for cross-border talent to and from Hong Kong and Macao. On May 15, 2023, policies such as the nationwide implementation of group travel endorsements for mainland residents traveling to Hong Kong and Macao were fully restored.
The streamlined and optimized policies for travel to Hong Kong and Macao prompted provinces across the mainland to organize multiple tour groups, leading to a consistent rise in mainland visitors to these regions. According to data released by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, nearly 13 million visitors arrived in Hong Kong in the first half of 2023, of which approximately 10 million were mainland visitors, accounting for around 77 percent of the total.
Furthermore, based on recent data released by the National Immigration Administration, the first half of 2023 witnessed a total of 168 million inbound and outbound individuals passing through China’s immigration, marking a year-on-year increase of 169.6 percent.
At the same time, approximately 42.798 million entry and exit permits for travel to and from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan were issued, indicating a significant 1509 percent increase compared to the same period in 2022.
These figures further underline China's promising revival in outbound tourism. Indeed, Chinese tourists have once again become a significant force driving global tourism and offline consumption.
In terms of outbound travel numbers, the top 10 departure cities were: Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, Hangzhou, Foshan, Dongguan, Zhuhai, Chengdu, and Wuhan. This highlights that outbound travel is mainly concentrated in first-tier and new first-tier cities, with the "Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Foshan-Dongguan-Zhuhai" Greater Bay Area cities also playing a pivotal role in outbound tourism.
The primary reason driving Chinese tourists to travel abroad is leisure, with business and visiting friends and relatives (VFR) as the subsequent motivations. The rapid expansion of outbound tourism from China can be attributed to the rising incomes of the middle class, the growing desire among Chinese travelers to explore diverse countries and cultures, and the ease of obtaining visas and fulfilling entry criteria for various destinations.
Moreover, the retail sector captures the largest portion of Chinese tourists' spending when traveling abroad and is anticipated to retain its dominant position in terms of outbound tourism expenditure over the projected timeframe.
The steady recovery of outbound tourismInitial expectations for a robust rebound in outbound tourism this year have encountered a more precarious reality. Notable evidence of this transformation is seen in the changing preferences of Chinese leisure travelers. As reported by CNBC, the desire to travel abroad has surged from 28 percent to 52 percent among Chinese leisure travelers since last year, nearly doubling.
Business travel intentions have tripled, and interest in education, family visits, and medical tourism abroad is also on the rise. Other findings align, revealing that 50 percent of Chinese travelers plan to journey internationally within the next year.
A significant shift has also occurred in travel fears, particularly concerning Covid contraction. While it topped travelers' concerns in 2022, it has diminished to the least worrisome aspect this year, as per Morning Consult's survey. This shift reflects growing traveler confidence. Factors influencing this gradual recovery go beyond preferences. A recent report from the Mastercard Economics Institute reveals a shift in Chinese residents' spending patterns.
Known for their shopping inclination, there's a rising trend toward investing in experiences over possessions, particularly in a zero-Covid environment. Despite global economic uncertainties, Asia-Pacific's, including China's, travel recovery remains steady. As travel capacity grows, costs are anticipated to decrease, fueling a more dynamic travel landscape.
Contrary to an instant "boom," China's international travel revival is unfolding steadily. Though not as swift as initially projected, the evolving interests, changing attitudes, and gradual shift toward experiential spending all point to a growing and adaptive outbound tourism sector, offering a promising glimpse into the future.
The Chinese government’s recent efforts to revive outbound group travelChina's Ministry of Culture and Tourism recently expanded outbound group tour destinations, including popular places like Japan and the US. A recent analysis provided by the EIU indicates that this move will aid global tourism recovery, benefiting countries with simplified visa procedures.
While the relaxed restrictions will moderately boost outbound tourism, obstacles and cautious spending persist. Nonetheless, domestic travel agencies are expected to see increased revenue, leading to employment and income growth in the sector.
However, challenges such as limited flights and labor shortages could hinder outbound tourism's full recovery. A complete relaxation of restrictions is predicted in late 2023, but pre-pandemic outbound levels might not return until 2025.
Domestic tourism is thrivingIn the first half of 2023, domestic tourism revenue (total tourist spending) reached RMB 2.3 trillion (approx. US$318 billion), marking a substantial increase of RMB 1.12 trillion (approx. US$155 billion) compared to the previous year. Notably, urban residents' expenditures on travel accounted for a year-on-year surge of 108.9 percent, while rural residents' travel spending grew by 41.5 percent.
The remarkable rebound of China's domestic tourism sector can be attributed to a set of factors that differentiate it from the relatively slower recovery of outbound tourism. For one, the domestic tourism industry appears to be less affected by uncertainties surrounding employment and income growth compared to other service and retail sectors.
This is primarily due to the strong yearning of Chinese consumers to explore after years of mobility limitations imposed by the pandemic.
On the other hand, the prolonged revival of outbound flights has further bolstered the domestic tourism scene. Many individuals redirected their travel plans within China as international travel remained limited.
Notably, the return of international air traffic to approximately 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels is not expected until the fourth quarter of 2023, which creates a favorable environment for the vigorous resurgence of domestic tourism in the meantime.
Changing Chinese travelers’ preferences in 2023In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent travel restrictions, Chinese travelers underwent a transformation in their preferences and behaviors. Over the past three years, while international travel remained limited, domestic exploration thrived.
Around 8.7 billion domestic trips were taken, indicating an annual rate of around 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels. This period allowed the domestic market to mature, and travelers became more sophisticated in their pursuits, engaging in various new leisure experiences such as beach resorts, skiing trips, and city "staycations."
As a result, the post-COVID-19 Chinese traveler exhibits distinct traits: heightened digital savvy, elevated expectations, and an appetite for novel experiences. These characteristics paint the profile of a typical Chinese traveler in 2023:
- Experiences matter: Survey data reveals that the rejuvenated Chinese tourist is driven by experiential travel. While outdoor and scenic trips remain popular, the preferences have evolved. Sightseeing and culinary experiences, highly valued in the initial survey series, are now joined by a growing interest in culture and history, beaches, and resorts, as well as health and wellness. This shift solidifies the trend towards experience-driven travel. Additionally, activities like skiing and snowboarding have gained popularity, possibly influenced by the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games.
- Digital expert: Chinese travelers are among the world's most digitally adept consumers, easily integrating mobile technologies and social media into their daily lives. The pandemic further propelled their online engagement. Short-form videos and livestreaming have emerged as dominant online entertainment options.
- Curious: The desire to explore novel experiences in unfamiliar destinations remains strong among Chinese travelers. Despite travel radius limitations imposed by policies, survey respondents express eagerness to visit new attractions. Instead of revisiting familiar places, 45 percent of participants prioritize short trips to new sites, while long trips to new destinations are the second most favored option.
Emerging trends and destinations
Cultural and heritage tourismA significant shift in China's tourism landscape is the increasing emphasis on cultural tourism, where traditional heritage seamlessly intertwines with contemporary travel. As the nation preserves and celebrates its abundant historical and cultural treasures, a surge in cultural tourism activities like immersive experiences and interactive exchanges has taken center stage.
This trend is particularly pronounced in the realm of domestic tourism, where travelers are flocking to heritage sites and cultural landmarks to gain a deeper understanding of China's rich heritage.
Moreover, the development of cultural and tourism industries constitutes a crucial component of China's cultural confidence-building efforts. This sector has received significant attention from the government, evidenced by policies like the "14th Five-Year Plan for Cultural Development" and the "14th Five-Year Plan for Tourism Industry Development." Such policies drive the integration of culture and tourism, increase the supply of cultural tourism products, and enhance the quality of such offerings.
Wellness tourismIn 2023, a remarkable shift in travel preferences among Chinese tourists has propelled wellness and health tourism to the forefront. As observed by Rung Kanjanaviroj, Director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand's Chengdu office, Chinese travelers are displaying a distinct preference for destinations that offer a blend of sunny beaches and holistic well-being experiences.
This evolving trend has prompted destinations like Thailand to proactively adapt by refining their offerings. Through the enhancement of health tourism services and a focus on engaging student and youth travelers, Thailand has positioned itself as a prime destination for those seeking rejuvenation and self-care during their journeys.
The rise in wellness and health tourism reflects a broader shift in Chinese travelers' priorities, as they seek destinations that not only provide scenic beauty but also nurture their physical and mental well-being.
Tech-enabled tourism in China’s innovative travel landscapeChina's tourism industry has evolved dramatically through the fusion of technology and changing consumer demands. In 2023, the landscape is marked by a growing emphasis on tech-enhanced experiences that cater to modern travelers' evolving preferences that foreign businesses and investors in the sector can learn from.
- Smart appliances and IoT integration: China's tech-driven tourism trend showcases the integration of smart appliances and the Internet of Things (IoT) into the travel journey. Travelers now wield the power to personalize their environment and encounters via smartphone apps. Innovations range from smart hotel rooms adjusting lighting, temperature, and ambiance to IoT-enabled transportation providing real-time updates, enhancing comfort and efficiency.
- Virtual and augmented reality immersion: Tech-savvy Chinese travelers are increasingly seeking immersive encounters. Virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) have taken center stage, enabling tourists to explore historical sites, cultural landmarks, and natural marvels through virtual tours that breathe life into destinations. This not only enhances engagement but also serves as a potent tool for destination marketing.
- Seamless contactless services and digital payments: Contactless services and digital payments have become integral to China's tech-enhanced tourism scene. Travelers can navigate touchpoints like check-in, security, dining, and shopping with minimal physical interaction. QR codes have revolutionized payment methods, enabling transactions through smartphones, and eliminating the need for physical currency or cards, in alignment with the country's cashless society drive.
Similarly, the China National Tourist Office uses VR to transport potential travelers to iconic destinations. Through immersive VR experiences, individuals can virtually explore the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army, and other renowned sites, sparking wanderlust and encouraging travel planning.
Preparing for the return of Chinese tourists to the international sceneThe gradual easing of travel restrictions in China still presents a promising avenue for the recovery of the international travel and tourism sector. Amid this positive outlook, attracting Chinese tourists is becoming a priority for global businesses.
Chinese travelers, known for their enthusiasm to explore beyond their borders, are now seeking immersive experiences, quality accommodation, and exceptional service. Here are some strategies that foreign businesses can employ to entice and captivate the adventurous Chinese traveler.
Crafting authentic and familiar experiencesAfter a three-year hiatus from overseas travel, Chinese tourists are now yearning for high-quality experiences in familiar destinations.
They are looking beyond traditional shopping and sightseeing, expressing a keen interest in entertainment and experiential offerings. Theme parks, cultural activities, water sports, snow sports, and shows are among the sought-after activities.
The key is to offer authentic experiences that resonate with Chinese travelers' desires for immersion, while still maintaining a touch of familiarity.
Businesses should leverage deep customer insights to design offerings that strike a balance between accessibility and authenticity, ensuring a comfortable yet exciting experience.
Harnessing the power of social mediaSocial media, particularly short videos, has emerged as a pivotal source of travel inspiration for all age groups. Tourist destinations have capitalized on this trend by launching engaging short video campaigns, maximizing exposure and engagement.
The burgeoning trend of city-walking, for example, where urban exploration is undertaken solely on foot, has not only captured the attention of locals but has also made significant waves across various social media platforms. Chinese netizens are embracing this form of experiential travel, and businesses can leverage social media to align with their preferences.
Platforms like Douyin, China's counterpart to TikTok, have witnessed the rise of “city-walk content”. A recent video showcasing city-walk routes in Guangzhou amassed over 171,000 likes and found its way into the favorites of 72,000 viewers.
Furthermore, Xiaohongshu, a prominent lifestyle-sharing platform in China, reported a remarkable 30-fold increase in searches related to city walk during the first half of 2023 compared to the previous year.
Businesses can leverage social media platforms to connect with potential Chinese tourists, employing captivating content and innovative campaigns to pique their interest. Creating a strong presence on platforms like TikTok and engaging with influential figures can significantly boost visibility.
Collaboration with Internet giantsChina's tech-savvy travelers are deeply intertwined with the digital world, and internet giants like WeChat and Alipay play a pivotal role in their daily lives. Foreign businesses can tap into these existing digital ecosystems rather than starting from scratch.
For instance, Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport offers a WeChat Mini Program providing information about the airport, including duty-free shopping and travel planning. Alibaba's Alipay, renowned for its mobile payment capabilities, has partnered with tax refund agencies to streamline the tax refund process for Chinese travelers.
Such digital innovations enhance convenience and are fast becoming an expected norm.
Prioritize direct-to-consumer (D2C) channelsNavigating China's intricate travel distribution landscape can be complex, as it encompasses diverse channels, such as online travel agencies (OTAs), online travel portals (OTPs), and traditional travel agencies. To make the most of this landscape, businesses can consider embracing D2C channels.
By leveraging social media platforms and official brand platforms, businesses can create a compelling value proposition that resonates with Chinese travelers. Investing in D2C channels not only enhances branding but also facilitates direct engagement with potential tourists, allowing for a personalized and enticing approach.
Key takeaways: Navigating China’s tourism resurgenceAll in all, in 2023, China's tourism is making a strong comeback, driven by key trends that reveal changing traveler preferences.
Domestically, easier travel rules and higher incomes are fueling local exploration. Internationally, outbound tourism is gradually recovering with a focus on immersive experiences, wellness, and cultural discovery.
Chinese travelers are becoming more tech-savvy, seeking out tech-enhanced experiences like virtual reality tours. This shift is boosting cultural, heritage, and wellness tourism.
Social media, especially platforms like TikTok and WeChat, are vital for engaging with Chinese travelers effectively.
In essence, China's tourism resurgence is multifaceted, with travelers seeking enriched experiences, digital engagement, and authenticity.
Businesses that align with these preferences and capitalize on domestic and international opportunities are likely to thrive in the evolving travel landscape.