For almost half a century, appreciation of sports in China has been more of a patriotic act than leisure activity. Often a source of tremendous national pride, many Chinese view sports (like table tennis and diving) as a symbol of the country’s steady rise as a global power. Look no further than the Olympics as an example, where every single move of Chinese athletes is scrutinized by millions of TV audience members and government officials at home.
That observation might soon become history, however, as an increasing number of Chinese are learning to embrace sports as part of their lifestyle.
According to a recent report published by the Chinese think tank Qianzhan, China’s so-called “sports tourism” industry is already worth RMB206 billion (US$31 billion) as of the end of 2015. The report suggests the industry is growing on average 30 to 40 percent yearly, and is poised to reach RMB1 trillion (US$150 billion) by 2020.
Chinese tour operators are already seeing the impact. Ctrip, China’s largest online tour operator (OTA), is reporting a 400 percent year-over-year growth rate on their sports-themed tour products in the first six months of the year.
Despite the strong growth, China’s sports tourism market is still at its early stage. Industry analysts estimate that sports tourism only accounts for 6 percent of the leisure tourism market in China (compared to nearly 25 percent in the U.S.), suggesting huge growth potential in the future.
Higher profit margin is likely to drive more tour operators into this segment. Data suggests that sports-related tour products are priced on average 30 percent higher than the regular tour products, pulling in more profits for tour operators. Ctrip reports that many of its customers are willing to pay a premium for watching sports games overseas, often spending twice as much on these itineraries compared to regular tour products.
Chinese tour operators are taking notice of the opportunity and quickly claiming their territories. Caissa Tour plans to invest RMB82 million (US$13 million) to expand its product offerings in the sports tourism segment. Alitrip, powered by China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba, recently partnered with its sister company Alisports to launch a dedicated channel to sell tickets and tour package to the European Championship. Ctrip announced an exclusive partnership with OGC Nice, a top club in the French football league, to offer VIP tickets and exclusive experiences to its customers. Utour, a rising star in China’s tourism industry, is leveraging its experience as the exclusive ticket agent during the Sochi Olympics in China to focus on hiking tours and marathon matches.
In addition to watching sporting events, research shows that outdoor activities such as hiking, diving, and skiing are the most popular activities among Chinese travelers, especially for those who live in top-tier cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. Beijing’s recent win as the host city for the 2022 Winter Olympics—the first city to host both the summer and winter games—has propelled the government and ski park developers to invest in creating momentum to attract more Chinese to enjoy winter sports.
Travel destinations are adjusting their products and marketing strategies to meet this new demand.
The United States has seen a huge growth of inbound tourists from China ever since it received the Approved Destination Status (ADS) from the Chinese government. The growth accelerated two years ago when the U.S. government extended the tourism visa for Chinese to 10 years. Recognizing the increasing popularity of outdoor activities among Chinese visitors, the U.S. destination marketing agency Brand USA released a documentary in February to entice more Chinese tourists to visit the nation’s dozens of national parks. Released in IMAX 3D format for a “wow” factor, the documentary follows the journey of an American mountaineer and showcases more than 30 national parks.
Yellowstone National Park, the most-visited national park by Chinese tourists, hired three Mandarin-speaking park rangers this summer to help with communication amid a growing number of Chinese visitors.
Following the strong interest fueled by the Rio Olympics, destinations in South America could soon become a serious contender for the competition.
Take Argentina for example, the country’s dramatic and diverse landscape in the Patagonia region could be a natural magnet for Chinese tourists. Its football stars are well-liked in China. Its reverse ski season would make it a perfect summer escape for Chinese snowbirds. Ushuaia, often dubbed as “The End of the World,” is already seeing an increasing number of Chinese visitors due to a boom in Antarctic tourism. In fact, it took less than three years for China to become the fourth-largest market for Antarctic tourism.
In an obvious attempt to grow inbound tourism from China, Argentina announced a new policy to waive the visa requirement for qualified Chinese visitors. The news immediately stirred strong interest from Chinese travelers, with many calling it a watershed moment for the country’s tourism promotion.
Chinese millennials are likely to take the growth in sports tourism to the next level, but research also shows that their interests are far more diverse than their parents. Destinations that wish to grow their market share must make the effort to define their niche and carefully build a brand around it.
Charlie Gu is a director at China Luxury Advisors. He can be reached via Charlie@chinaluxuryadvisors.com.