How the Chinese Learned to Embrace Independent Travel

Once captive to package tour groups, China's affluent now seek more customized adventures overseas.
Chinese tourists take photos as they visit the Blacksmith's Shop wedding venue in Gretna in southern Scotland August 22, 2013. Independent travel has become increasingly popular with young, affluent Chinese people. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

For years, the prevailing image of Chinese travelers was this: masses of red-hat wearing people organized in tour groups, pouring out of big, noisy buses. But this stereotype is now out of date. According to a recent report from Hotels.com’s Chinese International Travel Monitor, 70 percent of Chinese tourists traveling abroad are now choosing to go independently.

So what’s behind this trend? For one, Chinese tourists these days are young: Travelers under 45 now account for 90 percent of China’s market share, according to the China Tourism Academy. And while those matching hats seemed like an attractive souvenir to older generations, to a growing number of sophisticated travelers, they, and the tour groups giving them out, just seem passe.

“There’s been a big cultural shift. This generation is embracing individuality in every aspect: ‘I choose my own job, I choose my own boyfriend, so why not my own travel?’” says Mei Zhang, the founder of Beshan, one of the few Chinese operators offering high-end, personalized, private tours. “Media is playing a part too: On one hand, bus tours are depicted as dumb—you wouldn’t see a celebrity caught dead on one of these. On the other hand, bloggers such as Gu Yue (who backpacked from Beijing to Berlin to see his girlfriend) are creating a huge amount of romantic adulation for the idea of life out on the open road.”

Much of what made group tours appealing to previous generations no longer applies to China’s savvy new urbanites. Their parents, and tourists from less-developed parts of China, value the security that organized tours provide, especially in countries where Mandarin isn’t spoken. But these new independent travelers are not nervous first-timers. They have traveled extensively before and are comfortable using foreign languages, having often studied or worked abroad. 

“Many Chinese travelers have already outgrown the domestic tour industry,” says Professor Wolfgang Georg Arlt, Director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute. “Most operators only offer standard tours of things they have already seen. Only a very select few are offering something more sophisticated or are catering to special interests such as wildlife watching. There have also been a lot of bad experiences with tour groups and forced shopping trips.”

In addition, the growth in online resources has encouraged independent travel. Sites such as Ctrip, Elong and Kuxun allow users to search for and book flights and hotels themselves, while others such as Qyer and Mafengwo offer free, Lonely Planet-esque practical guides and forums that help Chinese-speakers to plan their own adventure.

Meanwhile, websites such as Zanadu offer access to the kind of “aspirational accommodation” that is seen often in films, glossy magazines and billboards (think stilted private suites hovering atop the ocean in the Maldives) but is rarely offered as part of a tour itinerary. Zan Wu, the founder of Zanadu, says, “Our typical users are not necessarily super rich. They might be white collar workers making 15,000 RMB [$2,460] a month, but they’ll happily spend $250 a night on a hotel. They feel comfortable about their income and their income growth in the future. They like to enjoy life.”

As luxury accommodation becomes just as important to these travelers as ticking off the sights, money is redirected from traditional tour operators to hotels. These hotels recognize that the Chinese are now the world’s largest source of tourism dollars and are quickly learning how to accommodate them in the form of Chinese language websites, Mandarin-speaking staff, and smaller touches such as offering Chinese food at breakfast and Chinese tea and television in the guest rooms.

Gabrielle Jaffe is a writer based in Beijing.

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