Meet the Chinese Modular Traveler:
The image of the typical Chinese tourist abroad is often still that of a tour group member, jumping off a coach to have a quick look and a selfie in front of a major sight before jumping back into the bus to rush to the next attraction or shopping mall. However, as Chinese outbound tour operator know only too well, the reality looks quite different. The market is developing quickly and trends are changing fast and going on a package group tour certainly does not help a Chinese person anymore to gain prestige among his peer-group fellows. More experienced travelers, the so-called “Second Wave”, no longer see the necessity to become the hostage of the tour guide. Instead they travel self-organised, slowing down and looking for experiences to share on WeChat instead of the hurried ticking-off of must-sees.
Young Chinese joining the ranks of international travelers no longer follow the steps of a tourism career by starting with a few package tours to neighboring countries and regions before daring to travel independently. They immediately become part of the market segment which has entirely different ideas of an ideal trip and for which planning and booking trips by themselves using online and mobile services is the rule rather than an exception. They are not a small part of the reason behind the meteoric rise of online travel agencies such as Ctrip and Qunar.
Multiple entry visa for almost all major destinations and the strong renminbi add to the new trend and the emergence of an entirely new type of customer, the Chinese Modular Traveler, traveling as a FIT (Fully Independent Traveler) but booking for parts of the trip tickets and arrangements from specialized online platforms which are popping up across China.
Combining an online approach with the promise of unique, authentic experiences for the Chinese customer looking for something beyond package tours along the trodden path, specific modules are planned and booked from the comfort of the home or during the tour on the smartphone of the Chinese Modular Traveler, or CMT for short. All in Chinese, all payable with Renminbi.
Practically speaking, these Chinese online travel agencies are providing entirely web-based platforms where Chinese tourists can buy “experiences” abroad. Although typical items, like a New York CityPass or Disney tickets can be purchased there, the most popular items lean towards the “unique,” and the “authentic.” For instance, a product for Chinese tourists visiting the U.S., which turned out to be surprisingly successful is the visit to an indoor shooting range. Customers pre-purchase everything from shooting up a magazine using a normal handgun to a more expensive Action movie-inspired package including the handling of several types of handguns, assault rifles, and sub-machine guns.
Through these new kind of online travel agencies, Chinese customers are not only gaining access to experiences beyond what can be found in a group tour, but they are also able to shop for experiences that may be outside the scope of what a FIT would be able – or dare – to arrange for themselves. Learning to cook a local dish in a family kitchen, going on a shopping spree with a local amateur guide for the latest cool designer cloths, fast and intense dips into local culture and into instant friendships – all tested and adapted for Chinese tastes and ready to be booked.
From a supply side view, the Chinese Modular Traveler helps non-Chinese companies to connect almost directly to potential Chinese customers without the hassle and several layers of commission for third aides that generally stand between them and the actual customer.
The new type of tour operator allows Chinese customers to create their own modular tours, with a module followed by some independent travel, another module (this time maybe just a reservation for a trendy restaurant), and more self-organized days, all without sacrificing the convenience of booking a normal packaged tour – but with the opportunity to create a truly unique and personalized visit abroad that is worth bragging about. In a market where a rapidly growing upper middle-class can afford to travel abroad frequently, experiences that money can’t buy are only getting more valuable.
In combining the innovative ICT industry in China with the fast-growing outbound tourism market, companies like the Beijing-based Haiwan and the Shenzhen-based Woqu have been subject to substantial venture capital funding, fueling their rapid growth in the scramble for a bigger piece of the ever-growing and increasingly segmented Chinese outbound tourism cake. While online travel agency market leader Ctrip is gobbling up its competition through straight acquisitions, purchases of majority stock ownership and “strategic partnerships,” internet giant Alibaba is investing heavily in its recently released competing service Alitrip. The Chinese online travel market is certainly opening up for more specialized agencies that promise something different and show that one size does not fit all.
In the end, Chinese customers and international tourism service providers are all on the winning end. Travel options have never been more diverse for Chinese customers, and the Chinese market has never been more accessible to foreign tourism service providers, whether you are a Nevada shooting range or a single-person adventure tour company in New Zealand.