Comparisons and contrasts between Chinese arrival figures in 2008 and 2018: a decade of development

Last week saw COTRI publish its forecast for Chinese outbound arrival numbers for 2018 in its COTRI Market Report, declaring that the annual total of border crossings is projected to reach 154 million, representing a 6.3% year-on-year increase against the 145 million forecasted for 2017.

While 6.3% overall annual growth may seem modest in light of the steady double-digit increases seen in previous years, the statistics reveal far greater trends upon closer inspection.

The first distinction to consider is the division of trips made to destinations within Greater China (Hong Kong SAR, Macau SAR and Taiwan) and those beyond it. The total of 154 million forecast for 2018 consists of 68 million arrivals in Greater China destinations and 86 million border crossings made in the rest of the world, thereby representing a split of 44% arrivals within Greater China and 56% in all other destinations. This will represent a 2% year-on-year growth rate against 2017’s arrival numbers for Greater China and a 10% increase for the rest of the world.

While it is clear that Greater China destinations still account for a significant number of outbound trips, this dynamic has shifted rapidly as Chinese outbound tourism has continued to develop. With border crossings in ‘rest of the world’ destinations having overtaken numbers of trips made to Greater China destinations for the first time in 2016 (GC: 67 million, 48.8% / ROW: 70 million, 51.2%), one can see a very different picture emerge if we look back to 2008 – a decade before 2018’s forecast.

2008 saw a grand total of 44 million border crossings made by Chinese nationals, meaning that Chinese outbound trips will have grown by a factor of 250% between 2008 and 2018. Notably, among 2008’s annual figure of 44 million, 28 million trips were made to Greater China destinations and 16 million – meaning that Greater China accounted for 63.1% of all arrivals, while the rest of the world took only 36.9%. Accordingly, the growth rate over the 2008 to 2018 period is therefore projected as 142.9% for Greater China destinations and 437.5% for the rest of the world.

The longer-term 2008-2018 growth patterns further reinforce the same trend seen in the 2017-2018 year-on-year statistics: while Greater China still accounts for a significant proportion of Chinese outbound tourism, the substantial growth is taking place in destinations in the rest of the world, a clear indication of the ongoing maturity of the market.

While slow-downs in arrivals seen within the Greater China region can be influence by a number of mitigating factors – such as limits on day-trippers to Hong Kong from Shenzhen, Beijing’s anti-graft laws deterring gamblers from Macau and limitations on group tours to Taiwan – the growing trend in border crossings in the rest of the world reflects the ever-growing desire for international travel among Chinese consumers themselves.

As travellers gain more confidence, tourist visas become easier to obtain and flight connections from China grow in number, Chinese outbound tourists are seeking out more in-depth overseas experiences in order to gain the same level of lifestyle affirmation and prestige that a shopping trip to Hong Kong, for example, might have provided members of the Chinese consumer class in earlier years.

Among the vanguard of Chinese outbound tourists who are experienced in long-haul, international travel, a photo in front of a famous landmark such as the Coliseum in Rome or the Sydney Opera House – now visited by increasing numbers of their compatriots – is no longer considered an attractive travel prospect, meaning that such consumers will now seek out more in-depth experiences, such as self-drive tours or cooking classes, or even new destinations altogether. This trend is clearly reflected in arrivals numbers seen in 2017: while arrivals numbers in well-known long-haul destinations such as New Zealand (Q1-3 2017 -0.4% YoY), the US (Q1-3 2017 -3.6% YoY) and Canada (Q1-3 2017 -5.9% YoY) have been in negative figures, more ‘novel’, often smaller destinations such as Bosnia and Herzegovina (Q1-3 2017 114.5% YoY), Estonia (Q1-3 2017 44.5% YoY) and Iceland (Q1-3 35.9% YoY) are nevertheless seeing rapid growth. In the cases of Morocco (Q1-3 2017 193.4% YoY) and Serbia (Q1-3 2017 168.5% YoY), for example, the countries’ arrivals increases are being driven by their visa-free policies for Chinese nationals, serving to put them on the map as tourist destinations for the Chinese for the first time.

Furthermore, at the other end of the market, the fact that less-experienced travellers are being presented with greater numbers of flight connections and visa-application centres in smaller cities is being reflected in growth in arrival numbers in ‘in vogue’ regional destinations. This is particularly the case in Vietnam and Cambodia, which saw year-on-year growth rates of 47.7% and 45.7% in Chinese arrivals in the first three quarters of 2017 respectively, drawing increasing numbers of travellers that might have otherwise visited Greater China destinations for shorter regional breaks in previous years.

Nevertheless, while Greater China destinations are no longer able to count on the steady growth in arrivals from Mainland China as a result of losing their reputation as ‘hot’ destinations, or otherwise suffering from the knock-on effects of political strife, other destinations are not immune to suffering from similar circumstances. Thailand, for example, is struggling to continue to attract increasing numbers of Chinese tourists with a 1.1% year-on-year growth in the first three-quarters of 2017, while South Korea has seen 49.6% fewer arrivals in the same period, following the collapse of its group travel market among the political fallout surrounding its installation of the US THAAD missile defence system.

All in all, while the growth in total numbers of Chinese outbound travellers is not as steep as it once was, close examination of market trends witin the market reveal a much more diverse picture.

                                  Source: COTRI data

Image: Tourist by Dylan Luder, Source: Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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