As China's reopening gains momentum after three years of Covid-19 restrictions, the country's travel-hungry citizens are emerging much changed, according to the Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute, an independent consulting company based in Germany.
"The Chinese tourists we will welcome this year and in the coming years are very different from those who came before," Wolfgang Georg Arlt, founder and chief executive of COTRI, said at ITB Berlin, the world's largest tourism trade fair.
In China as elsewhere, years of pandemic-induced lockdowns sparked a shift away from major tourist attractions toward "more nature-orientated, more outdoor-orientated tourism," Arlt said. He highlighted the emergence of trends like camping and glamping, as well as family-focused trips.
Perhaps more significantly, many Chinese holidaymakers are still exploring the treasure trove of travel opportunities in their own country, he said.
"In the three years of the closure of the country, everybody had to travel domestically — including the rich people — which gave a boost to the domestic tourism industry," Arlt said.
That could mark a significant change in the international travel market, to which Chinese tourists are outsized contributors.
"It used to be that if you were an important person in China, you had to travel internationally. If you were traveling domestically, either you were too poor or you were too stupid to travel internationally," Arlt added.
"This has changed now," he said.
Plus "there has been an improvement in the quality and variety of the offers of domestic travel. So, for us, we have to compete not only with other international destinations, we also have to compete with the domestic market," said Arlt, who is also director of the Meaningful Tourism Center, a Hamburg-based sustainable travel consultancy.
Gradual resumption of travel
Chinese tourists made nearly 170 million outbound trips in 2019, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics.
In the first half of that year alone, their outbound travel spend surpassed $127.5 billion, a study from Chinese travel booking site Ctrip.com found.
This year, Chinese outbound travel is forecast to recover around two-thirds of those 2019 highs, with around 110 million border crossings from China, according to COTRI.
However Hotel group Accor estimates around three in four Chinese travelers will remain within the country.
"We anticipate that 70% to 80% of the travelers will still stay within China. Flight capacity is not yet at the levels of 2019," Karelle Lamouche, Accor's global chief commercial officer, told CNBC Travel.
Since the country reopened its borders in early January, a lack of flight capacity has left many would-be travelers stuck at home. In the week from Feb. 6 to Feb. 12, international flights out of China recovered only 9% of their 2019 levels, with 63% of those flights operated by Chinese carriers, according to data from Alibaba-owned travel booking site Fliggy.
In the meantime, many Chinese citizens have been beleaguered by delays in passport renewals and visa applications, as well as some short-lived travel bans from countries such as Japan and South Korea.
"Unless we have the passports, unless we have the visas," we can't be China-ready, said Ralf Ostendorf, director of market management at tourism site visitBerlin.
Because of those shortcomings, countries that can accommodate Chinese travelers' shifting needs have emerged as clear winners. Thailand, for instance, offers visas-on-arrival to fully vaccinated Chinese tourists who have travel insurance.
"Thailand becomes the top destination for Chinese customers," said Simeon Shi, chief strategy officer and head of corporate development at Fliggy, noting that Thailand welcomed 180,000 Chinese tourists from January to mid-February.
The country's Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said last month that he expects up to 15 million Chinese tourists to visit the country this year — around half of all inbound arrivals.
Tour groups and tailored trips
Still, other traveler preferences may be stickier. Prior to the pandemic, the majority (55%) of Chinese tourists opted to book their overseas travel through group tour operators, even as acceptance of independent travel has grown.
That trend is unlikely to go away anytime soon, said Shi — even if the types of services they're looking for have slightly shifted.
"Even nowadays, most Chinese people don't have a passport," he said. As the travel market evolves, he said he expects "group tours will still be their first choice," Shi said.
However, because of the pandemic, many tour operators have shuttered or reduced capacity, creating opportunities for new entrants to emerge with bespoke services, he noted.
Younger Chinese tourists, for instance, may prefer to visit a local cafe they saw on social media rather than major attractions, he added.
Arlt agreed that niche products and special interest tours, including those that differentiate between first-time and repeat visitors, could be the way for businesses to entice the "new" Chinese tourist.
"Understand what you have to offer, which segment of the Chinese market is the right one for that, and then offer it," Arlt said.
"Don't be afraid of niche markets in China," he added. "Niche markets in China are millions of people."