Half a century after western hippies began backpacking from Europe to Asia on the old Silk Road, young Chinese backpackers are discovering the joys of hitting the road.
The vast majority of Chinese people still dutifully adhere to the government-mandated, two-week annual holiday (an estimated 480 million people have just returned from China’s autumnal “Golden Week” break). However, a significant minority are eschewing both traditional family trips to spots such as Jiuzhaigou national park in Sichuan and increasingly popular overseas package tours, and opting instead to take longer, independent trips to more adventurous destinations.
Some countries have already felt the full force of this trend. A 2012 travel comedy called Lost in Thailand was China’s highest-grossing film ever, and resulted in such a surge of travel that earlier this year, the administrators at Chiang Mai university, where part of the film was shot, had to lock out multitudes of Chinese visitors.
“We are seeking a more experiential form of travel and cultural immersion than has traditionally been offered to us,” says Hong Mei, who made the news for being “the first Chinese female to backpack across India”.
The 33-year-old – whose travelogue, The Farther I Walk, the Closer I Get to Me, details her year backpacking across the country after quitting her office job – says she was greeted with incredulity during her wanderings.
“Fifth-century explorers Faxian and Xuanzang might have been the first Chinese to travel to India, but sometimes it felt like I was.”
Europe remains a favourite destination for Chinese backpackers. Chinese-language travel books, such as Wu Sumei’s Wandering Like The Hippies, are a veritable checklist for young Chinese, who – limited by visa durations rather than budgets – scramble to visit as many nations as possible. One popular book, A Person Walking in Europe, explains how to visit 17 countries in just 41 days.
Unlike western backpackers, who are often masters at travelling on a shoestring, many young Chinese travellers are not sticking to a budget. A study by the US-China Business Council reports: “Chinese backpackers are willing to spend more … they want more personalised services, such as global positioning systems and specially trained tour guides.”
Tech companies are waking up to this new market. Chinese travel agency Ctrip says that since it launched its multi-language app last October, it has sold more than 10,000 flights and hotels for 442 destinations.
Statistics are hard to come by, but the China National Tourism Administration agency says that in 2013 “the number of visitors travelling independently surpassed those who utilised organised tours to become the main force of China’s outbound tourism market”.
Until now Chinese faces have been conspicuous by their absence in hostels across the world. That seems set to change.