China continues to be an enormous driver of international tourism, representing a huge opportunity for brands as the new decade dawns. Yet, many businesses still view Chinese tourists in a very general manner despite the value they offer. For example, assumptions about Chinese tourist preferences - such as taking token photos as a primary travel activity - can quickly become an unquestioned and universal truth about this market.
However, with a population well over double that of the EU and changes in demographics and consumer technology that are evolving quickly (and, in some cases, leapfrogging western countries), generalisations can get in the way of forming a sophisticated approach to connecting with Chinese tourists as they visit Europe - leaving your Chinese customers dissatisfied and money on the table.
In this article, we will look at several demographics of Chinese tourists, and how European businesses might consider tailoring their approach to these.
First, let’s look at some stereotypes. The Chinese tourist of the early 2000s was likely to be firmly glued to a tour group. Flitting from site to site on a tight predefined schedule, he or she would spend big on gifts for people back home, and eat together with their group - most likely at a Chinese restaurant.
But the Chinese tourist of 2020 is more wealthy, digitally savvy, internationally-aware, and fragmented in terms of tastes and behaviour than this earlier incarnation. They are becoming more independent in how they travel, and adventurous in what they eat. Travel has become more a lifestyle than a luxury, and photos are no longer a box-ticking exercise. Let’s take a look at some of the underlying trends.
Trends in post 80s and 90s generations
1978 - the opening up of the economy- and 1979 - the introduction of the one-child policy - were watershed years in modern Chinese history and mark a sharp generational divide in Chinese society. The generations born after this period have enjoyed a booming economy, greater educational opportunities (thanks, in part, to all the family resources being dedicated to one child), and, in contrast to those older than them, have good-to-high-level English-language skills. They are driving the bulk of growth in outbound tourism.
However, they are travelling in a different way to their parents’ generation. Due to their instant access to information online, language skills, and often greater international awareness, these generations are FITs (Free Independent Travellers). They are not as likely to travel in groups, less dependent on Chinese language support, and more open to new and adventurous experiences. After all, according to Confucius, “it is better to travel 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 books”.
How they view the world online
Post 80s and 90s generations experience the online world in a much different way to their western counterparts - and are even more connected to their phones. The main search engine - Baidu - accounts for over two thirds of search traffic, and the multipurpose app WeChat is used as a social network, for online and point-of-sale payments, transferring money, planning holidays, contacting customer support, following brands, and a lot more. Chinese FITs will research their destination before and during their stay, using websites dedicated to ratings and reviews to find places and plan their travels. These include C-trip, Fliggy, Mafengwo, Xiaohongshu (RED), and the relatively new, highly popular short-video platform Douyin (TikTok).
The rise of the female FITs
With 30 million more men than women due to a preference for boys during the one-child policy years, there is a large gender imbalance in China. But, despite this imbalance, much is made in the Chinese media of what are often referred to as ‘leftover women’. While the name is a reflection of the traditional view that women should marry in their early-mid 20s, this group of single, educated women in their late 20s, and 30s, is now flush with cash, and increasingly taking the initiative in the FIT segment. In fact, women have become the main force of young outbound travel consumers, accounting for 62%, 24 percentage points higher than men, and an increasing number of these female tourists are travelling solo. But despite the rise of the female FIT, brands should not forget that in 2019 Chinese men, while overseas, still spent 15% more than Chinese women.
Travel offers welcome respite
So far, our outlook on the post 80s and 90s generation is pretty rosy. Our outlook becomes even better when we add the fact that according to Feizhu (travel platform by Alibaba) this group of young travellers accounts for 78.9% of outbound travel. However, they are under some constraints. Many large companies, especially in higher tier cities, subject employees to a 996 working culture – working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Furthermore, Chinese companies don’t always offer as many days of annual leave as western companies. As such, travel has become a welcome break for many Chinese, with travel plans often tied to major national holidays, including Chinese New Year and Golden Week in October.
So, what are some actionable takeaways from this brief look at the 1980s and 90s’ generations?
First, it is clear that while offline Chinese-language support may be less important than for older generations (although still appreciated), it is imperative to build a presence on social networks, especially on review sites such as Xiaohongshu and social media platforms including WeChat, Weibo, and short video platform Douyin. To build your brand online well, you should engage with Chinese agencies, or at least native Chinese speakers. This will help you connect with Chinese FITs in those precious moments both before trips are booked and on-the-fly decisions during their travels. In addition, a presence on these platforms and sites also ensures you are able to resolve any problems and nurture positive interactions before, during, and after their trip.
And finally, to make sure you are prepared to take advantage of major holidays and e-commerce promotional periods. The ‘big daddy’ of these is Single’s Day - the largest e-commerce promotional period on the planet and an unofficial holiday for bachelor(ettes), on 11/11 each year.