The hot topic among China’s burgeoning middle classes is not what’s happening in China. Instead, they’re talking about what’s happening outside China. Chinese professionals of all ages are travelling in unprecedented numbers to destinations such as Japan, the United States and Western Europe, places that were out of their reach only 25 years ago due to travel restrictions and cost.
The Chinese are travelling in record numbers. More than 75 million people are likely to travel abroad this year (150 million if you include Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan), compared to the approximately 65 million Americans who travel abroad annually. Around 10 million Chinese are now traveling to Europe each year, according to the European Travel Commission, barely 2% of total international arrivals to the continent. Consider that 18 million British people travel to Spain each year. China’s middle class will grow to more than 500 Million by 2022, according to most estimates.
More revealing than the numbers is how the Chinese are talking about their trips, providing insights into the massive shifts occurring in their middle and upper classes. Recent conversations – from eavesdropping on hip youth, multi-generational families and white-collar workers in mid- and high-end restaurants in China’s top cities – indicate important tourism trends are developing:
- “I’m done with tour buses and outlet malls. This local Chinese guide in Spain took us to some cute villages, so we spent three more days there relaxing and learning about the local culture and totally avoided the big cities.” Trend: Increasing sophistication. While guided group tours will remain a staple of Chinese outbound travel, more Chinese are repeat traveling and going it alone. Western operators that figure how to segment Chinese travelers and cater to them will be well positioned for the future.
- “I couldn’t believe how cheap Japan was – so orderly – and such nice and well-made things to buy.” Trend: Chinese travelers value quality, crave uniqueness – and are willing to spend, even the younger generation. The Chinese spend three times more abroad than Americans, and not on knick-knacks: they visit outlet malls and luxury goods retailers. The West must better understand rapidly evolving Chinese spending patterns.
- “I had heard amazing things about the United States but found it was not that modern.” Trend: The West is not perceived as advanced or ahead of China, as it once was. Chinese visitors will still want to see the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and the Statue of Liberty, but are increasingly attracted by clean environments, authenticity, culture and tradition. Many Chinese now travel abroad to avoid the crowds at home, which is often more expensive than overseas. The West needs to do its research on what visitors are looking for.
- “Service was shockingly slow in Europe. I kind of liked that, and the local food was great, but it also makes me appreciate the attentive service we get here in China.” Trend: Chinese are seeing the advantages, and limitations, of their own country. Chinese are seeing the advantages, and limitations, of their own country. That self-realization bodes well for the world. Only an aware and growing middle class can seek more freedoms and change – if they desire them – at home. Engaging with Chinese tourists, many of whom speak some basic English, is a simple but effective way to increase understanding.
To fuel consumer spending, the Chinese government has extended public holidays. Western governments have also taken measures to attract Chinese visitors through bilateral cooperation and advertising campaigns. Industry groups are also helping, aware of the economic benefits. In some struggling areas in Europe, Chinese tourism offers a glimmer of salvation.
Beyond the money, though, there are two overlooked ways the West can benefit:
- The West can learn to use new, powerful tools that will shape the future of marketing and business. Western companies need to learn new tricks to attract and service Chinese customers, beyond learning Mandarin. The Chinese use different travel tools. This means designing for mobile (vs desktop) – and learning how to harness WeChat (for communication and social media, instead of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter), Alipay/WeChat pay (for mobile payments, instead of credit cards), Ctrip (for travel, instead of Expedia or Booking.com), and Dianping (for local guides, instead of Tripadvisor or Yelp). These tools are essential to anyone who wants to tap into the Chinese tourist market. In fact, they’re fast becoming essential to anyone who wants to ride the next wave of marketing tools and trends. Understanding China’s tools will benefit hospitality industry operators and consultants – not unlike the industries that have grown up around SEO/SEM internet marketing and social media over the last decade. In fact, it’s puzzling to see courses on tourism or marketing that don’t address the Chinese travel trend or Chinese internet tools.
- The West has a unique opportunity to influence China. China’s growing global influence is inescapable. Growing media restrictions within China make global tourism one of the few ways Chinese can get a full picture of what the West can offer. Western governments need to create the conditions under which Chinese tourism can flourish: easier access, a safer environment, more convenience. The Chinese government is sensitive to its image in the West and trying to play its part. In recent years, it has issued guidelines to its nationals on behaving abroad.
And you and me? If you see a Chinese visitor puzzling over a map on their phone, reach out and try to help. The resulting conversation may be limited, but think about the small but important gesture you are making to improve international relations, to say nothing of your local economy.
The Chinese are coming, in fact they’re already here. To stay relevant and ahead of the curve, it’s time for the West, in this Year of the Dog, to shift our thinking and start learning new tricks.