During this year’s Golden Week holiday, which ran from October 1 to 7, the volume of outbound travel from China surged by over 800 percent compared to the same period in 2022, according to Trip.com Group.
“As international travel makes a strong comeback, we are witnessing a surge in demand from Chinese travelers seeking diverse and enriching experiences abroad,” said Jane Sun, CEO of Trip.com Group, in a statement. “This Golden Week has been a remarkable turning point.”
Yet, Chinese outbound travel is still far from its pre-pandemic height. In August 2023, there were 20,940 international flights into and out of China, less than half the number available in August 2019, according to flight database OAG. The long wait time for a visa — the application process for a Schengen visa, for example, can take up to six months — has also deterred Chinese nationals from certain long-haul destinations.
These were some of the topics discussed at Trip.com Group’s global partner summit on October 24 and the subsequent ITB Asia travel trade show held the same week in Singapore. Travel experts from around the world gathered to discuss the state of the tourism industry, new marketing trends, and how the Chinese traveler has changed.
Safety and special experiences: Chinese travelers’ motivations
As international flight capacity gradually recovers, Chinese tourists are prioritizing local destinations. During the country’s eight-day Golden Week holiday, domestic tourism revenue broke $100 billion (753.4 billion RMB), a 1.5 percent increase from 2019, according to China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
One of the reasons for this is that Chinese customers “feel safer and more familiar” with domestic travel, said Jim Ji, CEO of Trip.com’s Ticket and Tours Business Department, at ITB Asia. “This feeling of familiarity can reduce concerns and make it easy for them to access local information.”
Ji added that 93 percent of Trip.com users cite safety as the most significant factor influencing their travel decision-making process, while only 25 percent mention language barriers. Given this, attracting Chinese tourists is actually simple: “All we need to do is find a way to make them feel like it’s their own country,” he said.
This can take the form of simplifying the visa process: Qatar allows visa-free entry, the UAE offers a free visa upon arrival, and Saudi Arabia has an online visa application process. Saudi Arabia has also added daily flights to China, rolled out Chinese payment solutions, and launched a Mandarin version of its travel website to make trips more convenient for Chinese guests.
As a result, these nations have started to reap the rewards. According to Trip.com Group data, hotel bookings made by China-based travelers to the Middle East have surged over 400 percent in 2023, and bookings for attractions in Dubai have surged 450 percent from last year.
Besides safety, Chinese travelers are looking for unique experiences, including remote and off-the-beaten-path destinations. In a presentation by Hermione Joye, sector lead of APAC travel for Google, “adventure/discovery” and “personal growth/meaning” were the top two answers selected by surveyed APAC travelers on the role of travel for them.
Notably, one in four Chinese respondents sees travel as a life achievement or status symbol, per the Google study.
Capturing the Gen Z traveler with games and concerts
But different demographics seek different types of experiences. When it comes to appealing to Gen Z, Sun Bo, Chief Marketing Officer of Trip.com Group, notes the importance of incorporating their interests into travel products.
With China being home to 668 million video game players, gaming-themed travel experiences have taken off. In the two weeks to June 15, 2022, bookings for e-sports hotels on Trip.com increased by 257 percent month-on-month.
That summer, the travel platform teamed up with Honor of Kings, Tencent’s multiplayer online battle arena game, to host various offline activities during the 2022 Honor of Kings National Competition finals. At Changsha’s Tongguanyao Ancient Town, Trip.com unveiled an interactive market, a parade, and activities where participants could win tickets to the finals and video game merchandise.
Similarly, there’s been an uptick in traveling around concerts, as seen with Jay Chou’s performance in Tianjin in September this year. The four-day event clocked 185,000 attendees, generating about $411 million (3 billion RMB) in consumption revenue. The city’s tourism income surged 77.4 percent compared to 2019, according to the Tianjin municipal government.
To provide a one-stop solution for out-of-town guests, Trip.com launched “concert ticket + hotel accommodation” packages, which included breakfast and drop-off services, along with tour packages of Tianjin. On the day the package launched, searches for Tianjin were the most popular search topic on Trip.com, and hotel bookings in Tianjin on the platform during the concert period increased 188 times year on year, Sun told Jing Daily.
Chinese travelers turn to AI and social media for searches and booking
Artificial intelligence was another hot topic at the two events, particularly its ability to make travel planning more efficient.
Trip.com Group’s AI travel assistant, TripGenie, helps users create personalized, editable itineraries in under a minute using text and voice commands. Users can ask for an itinerary for a certain number of days at any destination, and the response will include lists of places to visit with in-app links to bookable tickets.
Since its launch earlier this year, TripGenie has doubled Trip.com’s order conversion rate and has a retention rate that is 30 percent to 40 percent higher than average.
“As the appetite for travel continues to grow, the future of AI in travel is expected to focus on efficient and highly personalized solutions tailored to individual travelers’ needs,” said Sun in a statement. “This vision not only signifies the next phase of the travel industry, but also underscores the profound impact of AI in making travel more convenient, personalized, and memorable for everyone.”
Short video content and livestreaming also play an important role in boosting user interest and conversion organically, said Jackey Yu, a partner at McKinsey & Company, at ITB Asia.
Location-based livestreams can help steer traffic towards local businesses, such as dining spots; destination-based livestreams can generate inspiration for non-local experiences like those at resorts; and AI-based livestreams can capture attention “as a novel format,” according to the McKinsey presentation.
Trip.com Group, for example, launched a destination-based livestream series, called the “Super World Trip,” at the beginning of 2023 to promote short-haul travel to Chinese mainland consumers. The first event, held in Thailand, achieved a gross merchandise value of 40 million RMB ($5.5 million) and sold over 20,000 room nights.
When it comes to new forms of marketing like livestreams, “the only wrong move on this one is no move,” said Yu.
This advice is true across the board. With China’s outbound flight capacity expected to fully recover in 2024, international destinations would be wise to adapt to the demands of the post-Covid-19 Chinese traveler in preparation.