When Ronnie Hou finished her master’s degree last spring, her parents gave her a trip to Seattle—a city that has fascinated Hou since her teen years in the central Chinese province of Henan, when she got hooked on Grey’s Anatomy. “I love traveling!” says the 24-year-old, who’s planning a Christmas trip to New York City and after that, “Europe, Australia, Japan, Korea.”
Hou is part of an army of Chinese millennials that’s reshaping global travel. Chinese age 18-34 made 82 million trips abroad in 2016, accounting for 60 percent of the country’s foreign travel and spending more than $150 billion, Bloomberg Intelligence estimates. By comparison, Americans of all ages made 75 million journeys abroad last year. As more young people travel, Chinese outbound tourism is expected to grow 8.5 percent annually through 2021, more than double the global rate, Mastercard Inc. predicts.
Venturing far beyond traditional destinations such as Hong Kong and Macau, younger Chinese sand-surf in Dubai, snowmobile in Finland, and sample U.S. nightlife at spots such as the Seattle sports bar Hou says was a highlight of her trip. They’re less interested in group tours and cruises than their elders are, and they spend less on shopping but more on hotels, meals, and experiences. “Seeing the northern lights is the No. 1 wish” for young people from China, says Silvia Wong, a former exchange student to Finland who co-founded an agency that organizes tours above the Arctic Circle for Chinese tourists. “They want to stay in an igloo, go on an icebreaker, go on animal safaris” to see reindeer.
The young travelers rely heavily on services such as mobile messaging app WeChat and microblogging site Weibo to research and book trips—and tell their friends about their adventures. Zhang Jinpeng, a travel blogger from Yunnan province who’s visited scores of countries, says the younger generation is constantly seeking “something special, new, something their friends didn’t get, that they can share online.” That, Zhang says, sets them apart from previous generations who “dreamed of traveling the world, but it was too difficult.”
Tourist destinations are using those same internet tools to attract Chinese visitors. Two years ago, Edinburgh launched a Mandarin-language social media campaign, with accounts on Weibo and WeChat, hiring a Chinese-speaking coordinator to run them and flying in a half-dozen Chinese bloggers for its Hogmanay celebration at New Year’s. The Scottish capital has seen visits from China jump more than a third this year, with a “dramatic shift” to younger, independent travelers rather than busloads of sightseers tagging along behind umbrella-wielding guides. “We’re much less keen to have large group tours that can create a negative experience for other visitors,” says Margaret McNeil of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group.
Across the Atlantic, Las Vegas has benefited from a surge in Chinese tourism, with arrivals more than doubling from 2010, to 233,000 in 2016. Hainan Airlines began direct flights last December and now brings about 2,000 passengers a month to the desert gambling hot spot. Affluent young Chinese rank Las Vegas as one of their top U.S. destinations, according to research firm YWS Design & Architecture. But unlike older visitors from China, they’re more interested in clubs, shows, and restaurants than in long nights at the baccarat tables.
Not all tour operators have benefited from the surge. After introducing ships sailing from China with millennial-oriented amenities such as virtual-reality game rooms, cruise lines have pulled back amid weaker-than-expected demand. Carnival, Royal Caribbean Cruises, and MSC Cruises have all said they’ll remove ships from Chinese ports next year. One problem: China in March banned stopovers in South Korea in a dispute over that country’s deployment of a missile-defense system.
Such concerns haven’t stopped luxury tour companies from beefing up their offerings aimed at the wealthiest Chinese. Zanadu, a Beijing travel agency, sells a 12-day trip to Argentina and Antarctica for almost $30,000 a person and an “electronic-music getaway” to a resort on the Thai island of Phuket where guests can mingle with 20 of the world’s top DJs. “Most people have already been to Paris with a tour group, stayed in a two-star hotel, and spent all their money on a Vuitton handbag,” says Zanadu co-founder Dirk Eschenbacher. Now, he says, they want “a kind of edge in their experience.”