From East to West: The Evolving Nature of Chinese Outbound Tourism.
Since the beginning of reform and opening up in the late 1970s, China has consistently been in the world’s eye as a major tourist destination. Rather than convince you with words, we’ll let the figures do the talking: China is the third most visited country in the world; in 2010, 55.98 million overseas tourists made their way to the Middle Kingdom; total income from inbound tourists has reached yearly estimates of 777 billion Yuan.
Although at China Brain we pride ourselves on not being overly superstitious, we thought it interesting to point out that, in Chinese culture, the number 7 symbolizes “togetherness” and is a lucky number for relationships. It is also notably one of the rare numbers that is considered harmonious by both China and the West. We’ll leave it to the readers to draw their own further conclusions.
Despite sustained development in the inbound sector, however, the number of tourists heading to China each year continues, in fact, to be outpaced by those heading out. Over the last few years, Chinese outbound tourism has been way ahead in comparison with inbound tourist arrivals – simply put growth is absolutely phenomenal. During the 2004-2008 period, the total number of annual Chinese outbound tourists grew by 12% CAGR to reach 45 million. In 2011, a research report published by RNCOS estimated that nearly 61.9 million Chinese crossed the border to see the world. The China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) predicts that by 2015 100 million travelers spending 100 billion US$ on outbound tourism will turn China into the world’s #1 international tourism source market.
Ongoing government programs and an increasing number of international agreements between Asian countries and the West, coupled with Internet penetration and incessant economic development, suggest that this trend will only continue in the near future. For its part, the Chinese government has been active in signing bilateral agreements with neighboring countries and relaxing visa restrictions, making it easier than ever for Chinese citizens to explore life outside the Great Wall. Although these efforts have been mirrored by foreign governments (the U.S. was among the last Western countries in obtaining Approved Destination Status (ADS) in December 2007), there is still room for improvement. It remains especially difficult for some independent travelers to obtain visa permission for travel, leaving little choice but to engage the often-expensive services of an established travel agency.
Who are these travelers, what do they expect, and what does this mean for the rest of the world? For starters, rising Chinese outbound tourism will only continue to facilitate a marked Chinese global presence – one that will become a much firmer reality for many in the West, as those who have fueled the export-driven Chinese economy for years finally ‘meet their makers’. As the Chinese tourism industry expands beyond leisure vacations to include industrial technology and cultural tourism, medical tourism and investment tourism – areas of tourism that are currently still undeveloped – how will the rest of the world react?
Many studies argue that rising outbound tourism may be a key factor in solving what has often been a turbulent relationship between China and the rest of the world. Rather than occurring at the intergovernmental level, these authors believe that successful cooperation between the people of China and those of the West, Asia and even India will be founded upon the construction of mutual social and cultural bridges. This type of dissemination usually works both ways, and as a whole generation of Chinese teens mature in a country distinctly more open to the world than their parents’ ever was, we remain optimistic of future collaboration. Could Mark Zuckerberg’s March 2012 visit to China be the first of many? It is still too early to predict.
Regardless, the question of the moment for American tourism and hospitality practitioners is increasingly becoming: What kind of services should we supply to Chinese tourists? Initial studies published in Tourism Management (Vol. 32, Issue 4, 2011) have yielded interesting results. For instance, findings suggest that “the major benefits sought by Chinese visitors in a pleasure trip include scenic beauty, safety, famous attractions, different cultures, and services in hotels and restaurants among others” (Yu and Weiler 2001). Mainland tourists also seem to prefer package tours involving multiple destination countries to a single-destination package. This reasoning stems from the common belief that, with a package tour, you are getting a better bang for your quai. As for shopping, analysts found that Chinese tourists are most inclined towards purchasing electronics and famous brand-name items, often as gifts for relatives.
The most common complaints registered by Chinese travelers targeted the lack of certain amenities at Western destinations, which would typically be found in China. Visitors to hotels in the US frequently criticized the lack of hot drinking water and Chinese tea, as well as the absence of one-use toiletries (e.g. toothpaste, toothbrush, comb) that Chinese hotels generally provide. Concerning food and restaurants, one study’s participants found that Western food was either too sweet or unhealthy (fried food and high calories), or it surpassed their approximate food budgets of 10-30 US$ per day. Almost every participant expressed a desire for more readily available, authentic Chinese food.
While the phenomenon of Chinese outbound tourism is still in its infancy, Chinese visitors to the West are rapidly developing into a large and sophisticated group of consumers – one for whom travel will only continue to become more affordable as the Chinese government allows further re-evaluation of the Yuan. Satisfying and meeting these tourists’ needs, as well as treating them with the cultural understanding and respect that they expect, will be a crucial task for Western marketers in the years to come. A better understanding of Chinese outbound tourists and their intrinsic cultural values will result in a more pleasant stay for all those involved.