Treat yourself in festive spirit, but focus on value for money
A tourist takes a photograph at a beach in Bali, Indonesia. [Photo/Agencies]
I'm a platinum member of a popular Chinese booking site, spending the equivalent of thousands of dollars on travel for the past 11 months this year alone. Yet I've been excluded from its private club－I may not be able to join it in my lifetime.
Last week, I searched the site for the best affordable package trip I could buy for my family of five for the coming Chinese New Year, a ritual my colleagues and friends do every year around this time. Our destination is Southeast Asia where sun, beach and tropical breeze beckon to people who live in constant worry about smog.
However, finding bargain deals was difficult. As a parent of two young children, aged 7 and 1, I'm picky about flights, connection times and hotels. So hoping against hope, I clicked on the dingjiyou or "top-class tour" button and was directed to a micro site devoted to the rich travelers. I was dumbfounded by how much they pay for their breaks.
While I shied away from an offer of more than 63,000 yuan ($9,150) for a five-night family vacation on Bali Island during the holiday, a luxury four-night package would cost almost four times more.
The perks for the wealthy include business-class flights, upscale hotels, bespoke activities and sweeteners like a massage or a welcome cocktail "Rock My World". In comparison, the deal I was looking at featured red-eye flights, stopovers in Manila and a basic itinerary interspersed with compulsory shopping tours arranged between tour guides and stores.
The eye-popping prices don't seem to have deterred well-heeled travelers with much of the inventory sold out weeks before the traditional Chinese holiday. In recent years, Chinese tourism operators and researchers have gone gaga over luxury travel that caters to a niche demographic, roughly defined as those who make at least 1 million yuan per year and spend more than 50,000 yuan on a single trip.
My booking site, of which I've been a loyal customer for more than a decade, screens potential travelers from its massive member database, offering private tours to tens of thousands who book five-star hotels and travel in business or first class several times a year.
As a frugal traveler, I'm not one of them. Whether I go alone or with my family, I'd put a lot of planning into it and try to get more bang for my buck. For longer leg room, I try to get a first-row seat or one near the emergency exit. We don't dine in luxury hotels abroad. There are many serendipitous discoveries in small restaurants, food courts or even deli shops.
But rich and young Chinese travelers aged 18-36 can now go abroad every 3-4 months, mainly for leisure, with an annual spending of 420,000 yuan and an average hotel budget at 3,100 yuan per night, according to findings by the Hurun Report better known for its annual China Rich List.
Surely, such extravagant travel isn't necessarily a rich man's folly. And not all prestige-seeking travelers ignore the intrinsic utility of their money. In many cases, privileged travelers seek unique experiences that impress their friends and colleagues on WeChat.
Two rich parents from my son's kindergarten class recently wowed us, with updates on their expensive family tour in the US, including a picture of them kissing their two young children, under a giant statue depicting a famous New York Times Square kiss that celebrated the end of World War II.
Yet, these costly experiences often smack of ostentatious spending common among China's nouveau riche. The Hurun Report says about half of rich Chinese Millennials' tourism spending is still on luxury shopping, primarily clothing, bags, watches and jewelry.
We've heard stories about how Chinese tourists abroad have become more discerning and sophisticated, with shifts from snapping up bags to having a coffee or stroll on the beach. Perhaps the luxury travel craze is a phase.
Even the discounted Bali tour looks ridiculously costly to me, since I really don't care what other people think of us.