Everyone sees China as a major growth market - even the Home Office, which has pledged to improve the visa system. But what are the real numbers? Professor Wolfgang Georg Arlt, founder and director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, examines the figures
China celebrated its National Tourism Day (May 19) for only the third time this year, as the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) declared it not only the world’s biggest domestic tourism market but also the number one international tourism source market.
The country recorded almost three billion domestic travellers last year and more than 83 million border crossings.
May 19 was chosen to commemorate the first travel diary entry of China’s most famous traveller, Xu Xiake, exactly 400 years ago - a period which saw Chinese fleets travel all the way to East Africa.
Under the current leadership of Xi Jinping, the campaign against excessive spending and corruption has seen the showrooms of Maserati dealers in China fall eerily silent and depressed sales of Chinese Mooncakes in jewel-studded packaging which sell for thousands of pounds.
Yet outbound leisure tourism still finds support from the government.
Outbound travel from China has accelerated at impressive speed despite travel into China suffering double-digit percentage declines in recent years due to rising levels of pollution, overcrowding and prices.
China topped former leading source markets Germany and the US last year after border crossings rose from 10 million in 2000 to 40 million in 2007 and 83 million in 2012.
During the period January to May this year 38 million mainland Chinese moved across a border.
Excluding any wild-card event, the 12 months to June 2014 should witness 106 million border crossings, resulting in spending of US$129 billion.
However, as always in tourism the statistics come with a recommendation to read the small print.
To start with, 83 million border crossings does not mean 83 million different people leaving mainland China.
Headlines proclaiming “6% of Chinese travelled abroad in 2012” are misleading in a country where only 3% of people hold a passport.
Managers who live in Shenzhen and work in Hong Kong push up the numbers, as do small traders who cross the border daily into Russia.
We don’t even know whether the statistics include Chinese pilots, cabin crew and sailors who travel for living.
More important, 53 million of the 83 million border crossings are to Hong Kong and Macau (the Special Administrative Regions) and frequently just day trips.
Of course, the remaining 30 million trips still put China top of Asia’s source markets - even more so if spending is taken into account, although the exact amount remains anybody’s guess.
The official figure of $102 billion comes without any explanation of whether the costs of air transport are included, for example.
About one-third of outbound travel is organised without a tour operator and any number is no more than a guestimate, hopefully well-informed.
Whatever the figures, the Chinese outbound market is too big and too dynamic to ignore. But will it continue to rise by almost 20% a year in a situation where China is moving into an economic crisis?
The answer is ‘yes’. China’s outbound tourism is fuelled by investment: investment in personal prestige and standing, in self-esteem, in education, in experiences, but also in shopping for luxury brands (often for resale or for cementing relationships back home) and even in shopping for companies and real estate.
Chinese visitors to Europe are not holidaymakers. They do not travel for relaxation and enjoyment.
The GDP growth of China may slow and the excesses of Mooncake packaging subside.
But intercontinental travel will remain an essential part of the consumption pattern of the top 5% of Chinese society and an indispensable lifestyle statement.
At the same time, the number of Chinese saving up for their first visit to Europe is growing, especially in second and third-tier cities.
Chinese outbound tourism has just begun.
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