Last year, more than 100 million people from China traveled abroad, making the country the world’s #1 exporter of international tourists. What’s most amazing about this fact is that, just a generation ago, only the elite and politically connected could get permission to travel abroad. The rest of the population could only dream of such a “bourgeois” activity under the restrictions of the Communist state. But today, with a rapidly growing middle class and a socialist economy that looks and smells a lot like capitalism, Chinese citizens have unprecedented opportunities to travel the world.
The boom in Chinese tourism isn’t just a way for Chinese citizens to learn about the rest of the world. It’s also an opportunity for the rest of the world to learn about the Chinese. As the anthropologist James Clifford once said, not only do tourists travel, but their cultures travel as well.
Here are some of the things the new Chinese traveler would like you to know.
Elephants, wineries, and soap operas are at the top of our bucket list.
Thailand is a favorite for Chinese travelers due to the ease of getting tourist visas, the popularity of a recent movie called Lost in Thailand, and the promise of white sand beaches and elephant rides. More affluent travelers flock to France, where wine tours are all the rage as Chinese consumers are starting to appreciate the once unknown beverage. The craze for wine is so intense that imitation French chateaus and wineries are popping up all over China, even in places like the Gobi Desert.
South Korea is also a popular destination because of Chinese fascination with Korean soap operas. Tours of Korean film sets, complete with meet-and-greets with hunky male stars, are a dream come true for many young women in China today.
We’d rather spend our money on shopping than hotels.
Middle-class travelers from China will forgo luxury living conditions and settle for simpler accommodations if it means more in our pockets to go shopping. Global hotel brands are starting to take notice, developing inexpensive hotels near prime shopping locations and big brand outlets. Which brings us to the next key trend among Chinese tourists…
We can’t get enough of luxury goods.
For the vast majority of Chinese travelers today, traveling abroad means a chance to buy high-end luxury brands like Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. It’s not unusual to see a Chinese tourist wipe out a store’s inventory of handbags, each one costing hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Life in China today is all about conspicuous consumption, and luxury foreign brands are the best way to show off one’s status. It’s far cheaper to buy these products abroad because the Chinese government slaps a 50% tariff on these items sold domestically. You can bet a Chinese tourist’s suitcase won’t be filled with cheap t-shirts and trinkets.
Tour groups are still the norm, but independent travelers are gaining ground.
When you encounter Chinese travelers these days, you’re likely to see them getting shuttled on and off buses in big groups, wearing matching t-shirts, and following a tour guide around. But as more Chinese, especially younger travelers, gain confidence in navigating the world on their own, independent travel is seeing a remarkable rise. And, like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, they’re making their plans on the internet.
Qunar, which translates as “where are you going?” is one of the most exciting websites to emerge in China recently. In addition to helping with booking, it lets users share their travel itineraries and crowdsource the best ideas. Online resources are also encouraging Chinese travelers to break out of the norm and go to places that are less often visited by their compatriots — including India, South Africa, and Brazil.