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China outbound tourism – FAQ

Recently, the policies of the People’s Republic of China with regard to COVID-19 and mobility have seen dramatic changes:

These sudden and unexpected developments have led to a lot of confusion in the global tourism industry. The European Travel Commission (ETC), together with the ETC China Chapter and China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), have prepared this short FAQ to answer key questions commonly asked by the tourism industry and media around the world about China’s outbound tourism.

Source for statistics: COTRI ANALYTICS.

After February 2020, leisure tourism from China almost completely stopped with the exception of Macau SAR, which for most of the time could be visited without the need to enter quarantine on return to Mainland China.

  • In 2019, about 170 million border crossings from Mainland China were recorded. 75 million visited Hong Kong SAR, Macau SAR or Taiwan, 95 million went beyond Greater China. These trips were undertaken by about 100 million people, representing about 7% of the Chinese population.
  • In 2020, the number of border crossings dropped to 18 million, of which 14.5 million happened in the first quarter of the year. 7.5 million of the total number of trips went no further than Greater China.
  • In 2021, only 8.9 million trips occurred, with the vast majority (7 million) travelling to Macau SAR.
  • In 2022, the total number reached 8.8 million, out of which 5 million went to Macau SAR.

On January 20, 2023, the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that sales of outbound group and package travel (from a minimum of a flight + hotel package) would be allowed from February 6, 2023, for travel to the following 20 countries: Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, UAE, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, Russia, Switzerland, Hungary, New Zealand, Fiji, Cuba, and Argentina.

On March 10, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism released a second list of countries for group and package travel: Nepal, Brunei, Vietnam, Mongolia, Iran, Jordan, Tanzania, Namibia, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Zambia, Senegal, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Serbia, Croatia, France, Greece, Spain, Iceland, Albania, Italy, Denmark, Portugal, Slovenia, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Panama, Dominica, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas. 

Three main bottlenecks are foreseen: passports, visas, and air connections.

The offices responsible for issuing passports have restarted their services after a break of more than a year. Most Chinese will have to (re-)apply for a passport.

The foreign consulates in China will have to bring back larger numbers of officers working on visa applications, which will probably also slow down the processing in the next few months.

Airlines have started to announce the reinstalment of routes to and from China. However, it will also take them several months to offer a substantial number of seats at affordable prices.

Absolutely yes. There are two main groups: Chinese who have urgent non-leisure reasons to travel including business, family reunions, education, health, and others. Among the leisure travellers, the majority have stated in surveys that they also wait for the opportunity to travel abroad within one year after the reopening.

Online searches for flights, destination information etc., as well as social media discussions have dramatically increased since December 26, 2022, while many European companies report requests for invitations for business delegations.

Outbound trips beyond Greater China are affordable for about 10% of the Chinese population, and leisure trips to Europe for about 7%, i.e., 100 million people. Some wealth has been lost in these strata of society, especially due to the crisis in the real estate market. However, while this might influence plans to buy a sports car or private investments, the budget needed for a trip to Europe should not be impacted.

The market segment which will be more affected by the economic problems is the urban middle class. Their aspirations to go on their first trip to Europe might remain unfulfilled for another few years until their economic situation stabilises again.

In the first quarter of 2023, mostly non-leisure trips will take place, with the exception of Hong Kong SAR and Macau SAR, as no passport or visa are needed, and these areas have followed the same COVID-19 policy as Mainland China.

A continuous increase in arrivals from China can be expected after Easter, especially in the latter half of Q2 2023. The season will be prolonged into Q4 as the more cautious observers will decide to travel again after it becomes clear that Europe is not a dangerous destination, also enjoying the lower prices for transportation and accommodation which can be expected towards the end of the year. If more special interest offers are developed by European service providers, more opportunities for a decrease in the amplitude of seasonality can be created.

Based on a medium/positive scenario (herd immunity in April/May, GDP growth of 3-4%), for the four quarters of 2023, the COTRI ANALYTICAL forecast for arrival numbers is as follows:

  • Hong Kong SAR: 32 million,
  • Macau SAR: 16 million,
  • Taiwan: 2 million.

For trips beyond Greater China:

  • Q1: 8 million,
  • Q2: 12 million,
  • Q3: 20 million,
  • Q4: 20 million.

Total: 110 million.

In 2024, the number of trips is expected to reach or even surpass the level of 2019, depending on the political and economic situation globally and in China.

The majority of Chinese travellers is expected to stay in Asia in line with the pre-COVID-19 travel flows. However, Chinese tourists have had three years to dream about where they want to go and to swap stories in their WeChat groups. Thus, there will be a growing interest in discovering new destinations.

This will offer an opportunity for Europe to increase its overall market share. Besides, less visited cities and regions within larger countries and less conventional destinations for Chinese travellers (for example, Ireland or Portugal) can be put on the map. More traditional hotspots will need to be more creative, as the percentage of first-timers among Chinese visitors to Europe will be lower than before the pandemic.

Yes, the next wave of Chinese travellers will have different demands, expectations and behaviour compared to pre-COVID times. Trends include the growing importance of travel in small groups or independently organised with family, friends or colleagues rather than large package tours together with strangers. Other top trends are:

  • Young people in China are very interested in sustainability and green topics, as China is also suffering under the consequences of climate change.
  • Authenticity is also gaining importance with more visitors interested to learn about local food and get into contact with local life beyond taking a photo.
  • Chinese consumer sentiments are shifting toward community connections, wellness, localisation, and a desire for a simplified, but still comfortable life, including travel.
  • Nature and outdoor activities including self-drive and RV tours were chosen by many during the years of domestic-only travel and camping and its luxury version ‘glamping’ developed as a new pastime for many people.
  • Digitalisation, gaming, AR and VR offers will also play a bigger role in their decision, influenced by the high-tech orientated offers recently developed in the Chinese domestic tourism and hospitality industry.
  • Shopping will be given less importance than before, with budgets going to fine dining and activities instead.
  • Most importantly, the segmentation of the market has developed further during the pandemic, and each market segment will look for customised products fitting their special interests and lifestyle preferences.
  • Some younger, well-educated travellers will even visit Europe in search of a new place to live and to pursue a career outside of China.

Yes. 2021 turned out to be a good year for domestic service providers, as travel was possible and affluent travellers spent their money inside China. The year 2022, however, saw a large number of smaller companies collapse as lockdowns and restrictions even for travelling across provincial borders hindered domestic tourism. Big companies and airlines received some government support, but still had to be creative. China Southern Airlines and Hainan Airlines were, for instance, among the carriers that opened livestreaming accounts on social media platforms to sell products such as makeup, electronic goods and food, using their stewardesses in uniform to attract viewers. Tour operators used their customer database to sell all kinds of goods online, including groceries.

Since the announcement made on December 26, 2022, the Chinese travel industry has been working hard to regroup their outbound travel teams very quickly. Many team members had been moved internally to domestic travel departments or had left the industry during the pandemic.

Yes. As there is less interest in package tour groups and more interest in special interest tours for smaller groups, it becomes more interesting to start to work directly with associations, universities etc., covering the respective fields of interest. The importance of Key Opinion leaders (KOLs) and celebrities is decreasing after many scandals. Key Opinion Customers (KOC) have become more important as an authentic source of recommendation. User Generated Content featured on Bilibili and Xiaohongshu has a higher impact with less cost involved compared to commercial content on Weibo or on Wechat channels with a low number of regular viewers.

Combining sales of authentic goods (F&B, arts and crafts) not made in China through Chinese cross-border sales apps with tourist information is another innovative way of building relations with interested Chinese customers and potential visitors.

Nevertheless, tourism fairs and exhibitions remain important, especially after the long pause in direct communication with travel agents. The first major physical fair in 2023 will be the GITF Guangzhou planned in May 2023. COTTM and ITB China will follow in Q4 2023.

Today. Many companies and tourism organisations in Europe have reduced budgets and staff working on the Chinese source market; many China experts retired or left the industry. Accordingly, there is an urgent need to (re)train employees and managers. The discussions after the announcement of the restart of China’s outbound tourism have shown that not many entities are prepared nor have an appropriate strategy ready for execution.

Companies and organisations will need to unlearn outdated ideas about the characteristics of Chinese outbound travellers. They will have to gather information with trainings, publications and market research to be able to identify the most fitting market segments and how to adapt products to match the respective demand and expectations and to leverage the new opportunities with the right kind of storytelling. Chinese customers will still be willing to spend money on international travel, but they will evaluate more carefully the value they get for their money.