In the last decade, a dominant narrative emerged about travel’s inexorable upward slope: It is, in great part, thanks to the growth of the Chinese outbound travel market.
The Chinese outbound market became the largest in the world in 2013, according to Skift research. In a pre-COVID-19 analysis, Skift research forecasted that China will send 286 million trips abroad by 2029.
“The growth in outbound travel from China is really just beginning,” Richard Tams, an independent consultant who worked as executive vice president of IAG’s China operations until 2018. “If you look at the amount of Chinese [there are roughly 1.3 billion] and you look at the tiny percentage of — around 10 percent — that have passports: We’re just seeing the real tip of the iceberg in terms of demand of outbound tourism from China.”
Tams describes the cultural appetite for international travel in China as “insatiable,” driven by social aspiration and the “WeChat-ability” of taking impressive trips you can broadcast to friends. He doesn’t see the virus changing that over the long term. Though a short term disruption — realistically speaking, for the remainder of this year — is inevitable, he expects demand to bounce back in China first once countries begin slowly opening up.
One thing that might influence where Chinese travelers return to when restrictions are lifted is that oft-ignored force in tourism: geopolitics. While the coronavirus defied early travel restrictions to become a thoroughly global phenomenon, that doesn’t mean countries (namely, the U.S.) have not tried to blame the virus on its assumed origin.
“Chinese are aware of what the media say in America or Europe,” Graff added. “They’re aware of any kind of racist incidents that are kind of related to the virus and the fear. That will affect their decision and the thinking of the image of a destination,” said Roy Graff, the managing director for EMEA for Dragon Trail, the first dedicated digital agency for Chinese outbound tourism.
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