The Chinese National Team might not have qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but that doesn’t mean the country lacked for representation in Russia this June. According to early estimates 100,000 Chinese fans descended on the host nation to watch the world’s best soccer teams duke it out, and were the second-biggest buyers of official World Cup hospitality services — including premium stadium seating, catering, and ground transportation — after only Russian fans themselves.
The World Cup is just one example of China's outbound tourism boom. In 2017, the China National Tourism Administration reported that Chinese tourists made 131 million trips abroad — an increase of 7 percent from 2016. And according to a 2017 Nielsen survey, Chinese tourists spend more per capita than many other international tourists — $762 per person, as compared to the global average of $486.
So it’s no wonder tourism officials around the world have begun paying more attention to China. Yet while many popular destinations have set up accounts on Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, they have yet to fully localize their marketing, and their efforts fall short of what it will take to ensure sustained awareness and engagement among Chinese travelers. This can have a trickle-down effect on travelers’ experiences, too. According to a 2018 survey published in the China International Travel Monitor, no European country made the list of the top 10 countries where Chinese travelers felt the most welcome.
In order to get on Chinese tourists’ good sides — and stay there — the international tourism industry must first understand their consumption habits. For example, today’s Chinese tourists show a marked preference for mobile platforms. In 2016, 25 percent of Chinese tourists booked their trips through smartphones — compared to just 6 percent globally — and have also grown accustomed to using translation apps and Chinese mobile payment systems.
Yet a commitment to these mobile systems is not enough. International destinations looking to attract Chinese tourists should make sure that their marketing and customer services account for Chinese tastes and booking preferences. This can be done by localizing and translating content, working with Chinese online travel agents (OTAs), adopting strategies to build positive word of mouth among Chinese travelers, and accounting for the need to make last-minute plans.
According to China International Travel Monitor, Chinese travelers identified access to translated travel guides as one of the most important services a hotel can provide, yet in 2017 only 18 percent of international hotels offered such materials. Hotels looking to appeal to the Chinese market can start by making sure their websites and travel guides are accessible to their Chinese guests, rather than forcing travelers to rely on questionably reliable mobile translation apps.
It’s worth noting that localization benefits the destinations themselves as much as it does travelers. Baidu — the dominant Chinese search engine — indexes and ranks Chinese-language content more highly than non-Chinese content, meaning that locations with a strong Chinese-language presence are at a relative advantage to their competitors.
International destinations must also do a better job at engaging Chinese travellers by using local online travel agencies such as Ctrip. Chinese tourists rarely use international OTAs — such as Expedia — to book trips. It is a question of familiarity: They have used Chinese OTAs before and have no desire to change.
And it is not as though Chinese domestic OTAs are undeveloped. Ctrip and Fliggy — two of the largest Chinese travel OTAs — have 53 million and 16 million monthly active users, respectively. These sites also allow tourists to leave comments about their experiences, helping build positive word of mouth in a language accessible to most Chinese.
As elsewhere, positive word of mouth is key to attracting new visitors. Chinese OTAs and Yelp-like apps such as Dianping provide forums for Chinese tourists to leave feedback and review their experiences. In a 2010 survey, over 60 percent of Chinese netizens said they considered word of mouth in their purchasing decisions. Yet many international destinations remain unfamiliar with how best to engage Chinese tourists online, costing them potential positive reviews.
ION Orchard — an upscale Singapore shopping center — is an example of a destination that has successfully catered to its Chinese clientele. Mall management has set up a WeChat account and now offers raffles through Chinese payment provider UnionPay. Smaller attractions — such as restaurants — can consider pleasantly surprising their Chinese guests by providing them with a map highlighting nearby tourist attractions after the bill is settled.
Destinations also shouldn’t be shy about embracing the transactional nature of their services. In China, it is common for staff to request a good review on social media after delivering a positive experience to guests, such as providing early hotel check-in. Yet many international destinations seem reluctant to do so. They should learn from their Chinese counterparts and train their staff to solicit reviews — at the right moment, of course.
Finally, one of the best ways to engage with Chinese tourists is to appeal to them during their spare time. The top three most-used apps by Chinese tourists traveling abroad are WeChat, Google Maps, and Dianping. Chinese travelers rely on mobile apps to look up directions in Chinese and find things to do during gaps in their itineraries.
Dianping, for example, allows its 200 million users to rate local businesses’ promotional deals and services, helping other users make informed decisions about how best to spend their downtime. Of course, this can present challenges of its own, since, like many similar services, the app is plagued by fake reviews. But establishing a presence on these apps is vital not only for enhancing a destination’s visibility for Chinese netizens, but also for luring in tourists who are searching for something to do at the last minute.
The Chinese travel market has become increasingly diverse in recent years, as the majority of China-based travelers have switched from booking travel packages to more independent options, and many tourists are starting to do more research on their own. In the first half of 2017, 42 percent of outbound tourists chose package tours, while 58 percent chose more independent travel options. Driving this shift is an increased demand for a more personalized and intimate travel experience.
Chinese tourists are no longer content to spend their trips taking pictures from a tour bus and shopping; moving forward, there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to attracting and engaging with this increasingly experience-driven and savvy market. In the future, international attractions that tailor their experiences to Chinese guests and work to ensure that they have meaningful, unique, and memorable experiences will emerge triumphant. And they won’t be the only winners: A more inclusive approach to tourism will benefit travelers just as much as it will the industry itself.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A Chinese fan poses for a photo during a World Cup match between France and Uruguay in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, July 6, 2018. Mao Jianjun/CNS/VCG)