Jin Na was billed nearly 4,000 yuan (S$740) to make three micro blog posts when traveling in Russia in 2010. While her case is arguably extreme, many Chinese are discovering that using the Internet while traveling abroad can cost more than they bargained for.
Consequently, about 10 per cent of outbound Chinese tourists are getting around exorbitant roaming charges by using 3G-powered smartphone Wi-Fi transmitters, travel website Ctrip says in a report released in April last year.
About 90 per cent of the “several thousand” Chinese travelers from 78 cities Ctrip polled consider Wi-Fi indispensable when traveling. They prefer travel agencies that offer free Wi-Fi.
Most Chinese instantly update their social networks using their mobile phones, says Yang Yanfeng, a researcher with the China Tourism Academy’s Institute of Tourism Industry and Enterprise Development.
“Chinese tourists send photos and short videos to friends and family when traveling abroad, and some share travelogues online,” Yang says. “Individual travelers often use phone apps to create itineraries and book hotels.”
Such activities require large data flows that can be expensive without Wi-Fi, he explains.
“Roaming charges overseas are more than 10 times higher than in China,” Ctrip’s tourism department’s marketing director Dai Yu says.
Roughly 76 per cent of Chinese tourists take advantage of free Wi-Fi at hotels, restaurants and cafes, the report says. But free Wi-Fi isn’t always available, even in regions with advanced telecommunications, such as the United States and Europe.
Portable Wi-Fi costs 15-50 yuan (S$3-11) a day, depending on the country. It’s cheaper in South Korea, Japan and Thailand than in much of the West.
The report points out having Wi-Fi enticed more than 40 per cent of travelers to double their time online.
It says 16 per cent of tourists use Wi-Fi to chat with friends and family; 16 per cent use it for maps and directions; 15 per cent upload photos on social media; 12 per cent use it to find information about destinations; 11 per cent keep up with news; and 6 per cent book hotels. A growing number of travel agencies offer increasingly diverse Wi-Fi services.
Ctrip leases Wi-Fi transmitters at airports that offer unlimited data for about 20 yuan a day on average in more than 100 countries, Dai says. The company plans to make mobile Wi-Fi an integral part of its business model, she says.
“We’ve seen our Wi-Fi business surge thanks to reasonable pricing and smooth surfing,” Dai says. “More suppliers are entering the market.”
Travel website Tuniu.com also launched a Wi-Fi phone service in 2013. More than 100,000 people used the service last year, the company’s media officer Sun Libin says. Business has surged for mobile Wi-Fi equipment producer Uptrip since the first half of last year.
More than 3 million people used its Wi-Fi transmitters in 2014, the company’s CEO Tang Jirong says. Most placed orders through such e-commerce platforms as Taobao and Tmall, and the messaging platform WeChat.
Tang explains demand is growing in pace with smartphone technology, social media development and the increase of outbound Chinese travelers. He expects 10 million users soon, since the service is increasingly popular with travelers.
Given that more than 100 million Chinese went abroad last year, and the 10 per cent who used Wi-Fi services spent an average of 150 yuan, the market is projected to be at least 1.5 billion yuan. And it’s expected to grow substantially.
But the business may become obsolete in five to eight years, Yang says, since more locations are offering free Wi-Fi. He believes more for-profit models should be introduced.
Beijing-based travel communication-service provider Uroaming’s vice-president, Sun Dehuo, believes more Wi-Fi providers are paying attention to demand from tourists and will offer more services for outbound travelers in the future.