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Travelers steering clear of the beaten track

By Yang Han in Hong Kong | China Daily | Updated: 2019-10-14 09:27
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Outbound tourists are increasingly switching focus to customized trips

After months of planning, a newlywed couple in Beijing is taking a honeymoon in Europe that they planned themselves.

"I have always wanted to go to Europe, traveling to France to see Paris - the city of love and romance," Yu Le, 29, said. "But we only had 10 days for marriage leave, so we decided to save it until the National Day holiday to spend more time there."

Yu and her husband Jia Moyao left home on Oct 1 for a 20-day holiday - mainly in France, Italy and Switzerland. Although it is their first visit to the continent, instead of joining a tour group, they decided to plan the trip themselves for a "fully customized experience".

Jia said while it is safer to visit mainstream destinations, a customized holiday allows time for "niche" activities and alternative routes. A keen amateur photographer, he wants to visit less popular but more scenic places, for example, Positano in southern Italy.

Known for its colorful buildings that nestle between mountains and the sea, the town on the Amalfi Coast draws thousands of tourists a year. "We want to go where the local people go (on holiday)," Jia said.

"It is also easier to take photographs in less-popular places. Just imagine how hard it is to get a satisfying photo among the crowds under the Eiffel Tower."

The couple was among millions of Chinese making outbound trips during the weeklong National Day holiday.

Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, or COTRI, said: "More Chinese travelers are pursuing special interests, which can involve hobbies such as golf, photography and dining. Other areas include health tourism and educational activities."

For Chinese outbound travelers, "activities and experiences are becoming more important than sightseeing and shopping", he said, adding that more people are traveling to "live like the locals".

This is especially true for Yu, the newlywed.

"I am the kind of person who can skip a meal or eat cheaply if I want to go somewhere that really interests me," she said. "I hope that with our limited time (in Europe), I will have more opportunities to speak with locals (to learn about their lives) - even just by talking to taxi drivers."

A report from Ctrip, China's largest online travel agency by revenue, said Chinese citizens would make 800 million trips at home and abroad during the National Day holiday. More than 60 percent of bookings on the agency's platform involve outbound travel.

Wendy Min, director of international affairs at Ctrip, said that instead of settling for the most popular destinations, Chinese travelers of all ages are now more willing to explore less-visited destinations for a "sense of uniqueness".

"Even when they go to mainstream countries, they will discover new routes," she said.

Europe was one of the most popular overseas destinations for Chinese travelers in the first half of this year, but emerging countries are also receiving more such visitors, according to a report by Ctrip and the China Tourism Academy, a think tank responsible to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Croatia, a relatively small but geographically diverse country in the northwest of the Balkans, topped the report's list of "dark horse" destinations. In the first half of this year, the number of Chinese visitors to the country rose by 540 percent year-on-year, the report said.

Destinations such as Latvia, Slovenia and Bulgaria also witnessed triple-digit growth.

Ctrip's Min said Croatia's increasing popularity is largely due to the fact that many scenes from the hit television series Game of Thrones were filmed there.

Min said Chinese travelers are now more focused on the quality of their trips, and increasing numbers have been traveling in small and private groups in recent years.

Last year, about 50 percent of Chinese outbound travelers chose to join a tour group, with others opting for private groups for more flexibility, according to a report by Ctrip and the China Tourism Academy.

Min said: "Private tour groups are for people who don't like to make plans or travel with strangers. They can also select the theme of their trip, with a focus on history, culture, fashion or nature, for example."

She said that as of the middle of last month, the average cost for an overseas private tour group with Ctrip during the National Day holiday was about 8,500 yuan ($1,200) per person, similar to that for a regular tour group.

"This is because travelers can set their budget, and the trip organizer can make adjustments accordingly to meet their demands," Min said.

Arlt, from COTRI, said that while Chinese travelers are willing to pay more, they expect better quality in return.

For Yu and Jia, the Beijing newlyweds, traveling by themselves gives them more freedom to decide where to go and to explore local lifestyles.

"I make my plans mostly based on information from online travel websites or social media platforms such as Xiaohongshu," Jia said, adding that he has also received recommendations from a friend who is an experienced traveler.

As of January, Xiaohongshu had more than 200 million registered users, according to market research company Daxue Consulting. The app started out as a platform for outbound Chinese travelers to share their shopping experiences, but later featured a wide range of content, with a focus on areas such as fashion, food and travel.

Arlt said the Chinese outbound travel market is developing so quickly that it is difficult for global tourism service providers to keep up with the trend.

Take social media, for example. He said that by the time one platform catches on with international service providers, another has already become more popular.

He added that international tourism destinations should adopt related products and services to cater to Chinese travelers.

Understanding the needs of different groups of Chinese travelers is also important, as age, place of origin and previous travel experience can all be important factors, Arlt said.

"The Belt and Road Initiative is very important and will focus more attention on less-visited destinations," he said. "Silk Road countries, such as Iran and Turkey, are also becoming more popular among Chinese travelers."

The number of Chinese visiting countries and regions taking part in the initiative is expected to exceed 150 million by next year, according to a report by Chinese travel website Mafengwo and the China Tourism Academy.

As of April, nonstop flights were operating between China and 45 BRI-related countries and regions, according to the Ministry of Transport. A total of 112 new flight routes have opened since last year to countries and regions involved in the initiative.

As of the end of April, more travel-friendly visa policies had been launched, with 131 countries and regions signing cooperation agreements with China. Of these, 52 waived the need for visas for Chinese travelers, or issued them on arrival.

Min, from Ctrip, said mainstream destinations will remain popular, especially as many travelers tend to revisit them if they can pursue special activities. "Tourism is a way of communicating and exploring things that one loves," she said.

Since 2013, China has been the source of the highest number of outbound tourists annually, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

COTRI estimates that the total number of trips outside the Chinese mainland will reach 400 million by 2030, with 150 million trips heading for Hong Kong, Macao or Taiwan, and the remainder going farther afield.

Arlt said, "Outbound travel has become part of the lifestyles of many urban Chinese and it will certainly continue to grow in the coming years." He added that only about 10 percent of Chinese have a passport and can afford long-distance travel, "but in 10 years, this proportion will have doubled".

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