There is no better place to grasp the scale of the phenomenon than in the Shanghai headquarters of Ctrip, China’s largest online travel agency. In the network operation centre, data flows in real time across screens covering the walls, revealing what the company’s 300 million users are purchasing, where they are travelling and what services they are requesting.
“The system also uses big data to make predictions for the day,” says a company spokeswoman, pointing out two lines running across the video wall: one showing incoming data, the other predicting behaviour. “The more data we have, the more precise predictions become.”
When a customer makes a purchase, a spot of light appears on a large map of China. The more affluent east coast shines bright while the west of the country remains dark, a visual radiography of the country’s uneven economic development.
Ctrip claims that one out of every four outbound Chinese travellers searches for flights and books with the company, which also lists 700,000 overseas hotels and as many within China.
The lines on the screens may move up and down during the day, but the trend is always upwards. Despite a slowdown in economic growth, the Chinese made 71.3 million trips abroad in the first half of 2018, a 15 per cent increase on the same period last year, when they spent almost US$260 billion, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). And the domestic market is even bigger. According to the China Tourism Academy (CTA), mainland tourists spent US$720 billion on 5 billion internal trips last year.
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