Business / Charts

The world is their oyster

By Joseph Catanzaro, Yang Ziman and Wang Chao (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2014-11-30 15:23

The world is cashing in as more Chinese travel overseas on holiday, but Europe may come second best

In an upmarket Beijing cafe, Gong Jiayi sips her flat white coffee and enthusiastically runs through the highlights of her latest holiday to Japan.

It was her third trip to the country and she insists it will not be her last. But when talk turns to her travels through Europe, her ardor diminishes. "Europe is good, but its not that good," she says.

Gong is a 27-year-old, middle-class professional and one of an estimated 100 million Chinese tourists who have traveled abroad this year.

France, Spain, Greece, Italy, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Thailand, the United States and Australia are some of the places she has visited in the past 15 years.

Gong, a project manager who works for an environmental consultancy firm, represents the changing face of the Chinese outbound traveler, the bulk of whom (38 percent) are now aged between 25 and 34, according to this year's China International Monitor Survey.

Like 67 percent of her peers, she likes to make her own travel arrangements instead of going on a group tour, and like 53 percent of the new breed of globetrotters from the world's second-largest economy, she books her accommodation online or via mobile apps.

The Chinese outbound tourist is a demographic that in the past decade has gone from being negligible to the biggest and most lucrative force in the global tourism market, and given that only about 5 percent of China's population of 1.3 billion is currently estimated to hold a passport, it is only going to get bigger.

In the next five years, the China Tourism Academy predicts the nation's total number of outbound tourists will widen its lead as the No 1 global market (a position wrested from the US in 2012), rising to 150 million Chinese travelers going abroad annually.

With an average budget of $1,100 a day, excluding accommodation, Chinese tourists spend more than those from any other country when they go on holiday. Estimates suggest they will spend a total of $155 billion on overseas travels this year, 20.8 percent more than last year.

These are the kinds of mind-boggling figures that ought to have European tourism operators rolling out the welcome mat and rubbing their hands with glee. In reality though, Europe has been slow off the mark in targeting Chinese travelers.

The European Travel Commission estimates that this year 8 million Chinese tourists will visit Europe, a 50 percent increase since 2010.

But while the number of Chinese tourists holidaying in Europe has increased an average of 21 percent annually over the past five years, more than half of them have been first-time visitors, and repeat visitor numbers have yet to catch up even as the average number of outbound trips undertaken by China's burgeoning middle-class travelers has risen to 4.67 in the past five years.

Between 2015 and 2017, the commission estimates, the growth in Chinese visitor numbers to Europe will slow to about 7 percent a year, partly because of "persistent travel barriers" such as complicated visa application processes.

In short, Europe is in danger of settling for crumbs while other regions get fat on ever-larger pieces of the Chinese tourism pie.

"My friends and workmates, like me, think Asia is amazing for travel, because it's safe," Gong says. "Australia and the US are quite safe, and because many young Chinese now speak English, the language barrier is not that hard. But Europe isn't that safe. The language barrier is hard and the service is not that good."

While the Chinese outbound tourism market is growing, it is also maturing and becoming more discerning, and young Chinese travelers like Gong believe Europe is failing to adapt and keep pace to changing standards and expectations.

The numbers tell a similar story.

The China Tourism Academy says that, excluding Russia, not a single continental European country or EU member nation is now listed in the top 15 overseas destinations for Chinese tourists.

Outside Asia, which captures the biggest proportion of Chinese travelers, the US, Australia and Canada are the big winners.

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