Coming off a successful 2014, during which it racked up more than 2.1 million arrivals from mainland China (a 21 percent increase year on year), the United States is poised to see another Chinese tourism boom this year. Despite fierce competition from popular destinations like France and South Korea, owing to recent developments like the 10-year visa extension, the country is set to see the largest-ever number of Chinese tourist arrivals, with retailers and brands expecting a summer rush starting next month.
Although Chinese New Year and October Golden Week are seen by brands and tourist destinations as peak seasons, in reality the three months from June to August are when the real boom happens. From June to August 2014, the United States received a total of 771,306 tourists from mainland China—nearly half of the entire year’s arrivals. Year-on-year increases for each of those months ranged from 18 to 22 percent.
This summer, the expectation among travel industry insiders is that long-haul flights will continue to see an increase, with Europe and the United States leading the way. Bargain-minded tourists will likely zero in on the EU, spurred by a weaker euro, while the new longer U.S. visas will attract repeat visitors and those looking for experiences off the beaten track—and far beyond the tour buses and flag-waving tour guides in Europe.
For tourist destinations and retailers, a number of new trends are shaping the Chinese outbound tourism market in 2015, providing new avenues of opportunity. This year, we expect to see individual travelers narrow the gap with group tourists, as new websites offer easier ways to develop travelers’ own itineraries and major players like Alibaba’s Alitrip make strong overtures to independent tourists. Additionally, Chinese visitors will make stronger inroads to less-traveled destinations, as they look to spend more on better-quality and unique experiences—in the hopes of not only showing off, but experiencing an aspirational lifestyle. As part of that, self-driven tours (particularly in the United States) will continue to grow in popularity this year, as will national parks and outdoor destinations.
Other areas of growing popularity in the China market are international cruises, which are particularly popular with older consumers, but even students out of their U.S. universities for summer. Chinese travelers increasingly enjoy cruises for their convenience (all-inclusive, visit many countries in one trip) and relatively low cost. In addition to cruises, we expect to see more travelers visit the United States this summer as part of overseas incentive trips provided by their employers (a trend that has become highly publicized in Europe in recent months.)
So what are the best ways for service providers to prepare for the summer influx? First off, it’s important to ensure websites and social media accounts are updated with important information in simplified Chinese. Those with access to Chinese-speaking staff also need to scour Chinese travel forums and online guides to gauge the presence of their destination and update when possible. To ensure destinations are included in the packages sold by tour operators, proactive outreach to these operators and guides is a good way to get one’s brand or store added to itineraries, while outreach to Chinese-language media can help build buzz and attract more independent tourists.
Perhaps more than anything, companies should use the summer months as valuable catalysts to either revamp their China strategies or jump-start new efforts. Using observations gleaned from the warmer months, companies can see if their efforts are having an effect and why—and to zero in on areas that need improvement.
Renee Hartmann is the co-founder of China Luxury Advisors.