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    China’s Tourism Industry Rides the ‘Silver Wave’

    With abundant free time and a lifetime’s worth of savings, senior citizens constitute an increasingly attractive market for travel companies.

    This article is part of a series about the changing face of Chinese tourism.

    SHANGHAI — Chic “auntie” Ying Limin, 64, gets up at the crack of dawn to make it to class at Shanghai University for the Elderly.

    She’s one of around 70 students, most aged 50 and over, who have gathered for today’s lesson on visiting Switzerland — a kind of “Travel 101” for senior tourists. “I’d love to go to Switzerland with my classmates in November,” Ying says longingly, adding that she won’t be able to because her schedule’s already full.

    With China’s population aging rapidly, active and engaged seniors like Ying represent an increasingly important market for domestic travel companies. With accumulated wealth and plenty of free time, “silver” tourists — as China’s oft-retired senior travelers are commonly called — are growing in number.

    According to the China Tourism Academy, in 2016, 122 million Chinese nationals traveled abroad, spending a total of $109.8 billion.

    Zhang Qi, a manager at Ctrip, China’s biggest online travel agency, estimates the current value of the senior tourism market — generally referring to travelers aged 50 and over — at more than 100 billion yuan (around $15 billion). “Senior travelers currently contribute around 20 percent of China’s total tourism market value,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone, adding that the senior tourism market is increasing in value by approximately 30 percent each year.

    Partly to keep herself busy since retiring in 2011, Ying has gotten in the habit of traveling overseas at least once a year. In 2016, she took two trips: one to Israel and Jordan for 12 days, and another to Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand for 10 days. For a 10- to 15-day trip abroad, she sets aside a generous budget of over 20,000 yuan.

    Appealing to the “silver wave” requires specific tactics and tailored services, says Wang Yonggang, an associate professor specializing in China’s tourism economy at Fudan University. According to Wang, offline sales still account for nearly 80 percent of the Chinese tourism industry despite a significant push from e-tourism players — and the senior market could prove particularly difficult for online travel companies to tap into.

    Unlike digital natives who find it easy to research holiday destinations online, internet-illiterate elders struggle to find answers to questions like where to eat locally, what souvenirs to buy, which airline to fly with, and how to book a hotel. Then there’s the problem of the digital wallet: “When dealing with online payment, senior citizens are often reluctant and afraid,” explains Wang.

    While e-tourism giants offer tailored packages, like Ctrip’s “Mom and Dad Relaxation Tour,” localized travel agencies still face better odds among older travelers. “Senior citizens prefer to use offline travel agents with whom they can communicate face to face,” Wang says. “Travel agency chains with branches in residential areas are a great channel for older generations to access information.”

    With 50 branches across Shanghai, Spring Tour travel agency has been operating in the city for 30 years. Marketing manager Yang Qing explains to Sixth Tone that older travelers tend to favor well-established agents with brick-and-mortar stores, as they are inclined to trust brands with which they are familiar. The agency uses traditional promotion methods such as flyers, brochures, light box advertising, and face-to-face sales to reach out to local seniors, while also bypassing their fear of online payment.

    Yet as the elderly take to technology in increasing numbers, Yang believes the internet can be an effective tool for establishing relationships with older customers. “We’ve noticed that more and more of our older clients are growing accustomed to using [messaging app] WeChat to communicate with us,” Yang explains.

    To capitalize on this trend, Spring Tour travel agents have begun adding elderly customers alongside their younger peers to WeChat groups, which function as a subscription system through which the company sends digital brochures. Spring Tour also runs a public WeChat account with 600,000 followers, “most of whom are older,” Yang says.

    Travel courses at Shanghai University for the Elderly aim to teach senior tourists what to look for when booking trips and what to expect while vacationing abroad. For the first part of the one-and-a-half-hour class on Switzerland, lecturer Wu Zhongrui takes students through a presentation on a sample package tour — conveniently similar to those available through two travel agencies that partner with the university.

    A travel industry veteran, Wu fills his presentation with descriptions of famous tourist spots like the Alps, Davos, and Geneva, throwing in the occasional topical tidbit to keep the class engaged: While giving an introduction to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, he casually mentions that Chinese President Xi Jinping once visited the site, and the class promptly erupts into excited chatter.

    “What I’ve included here are classic places of interest in Switzerland,” Wu tells Sixth Tone after the class, explaining how he customizes travel agendas with a view to maximizing senior tourists’ experience of the destination’s local culture. Wu also emphasizes that trips shouldn’t exceed 15 days and should avoid physically demanding activities such as hiking. “Of course, comfort is a priority for older travelers,” he says.

    Analyzing why senior tourists are so willing to spend generously on travel, Wu points out patterns among his students: “They live comfortably, having made money in their younger years,” he says. “Some also have children living overseas.”

    For travel companies that develop successful marketing strategies to target the tourism industry’s growing silver demographic, there’s money to be made. “As long as I am able to walk,” Ying declares, “I hope to seize the opportunity to explore as many foreign countries as I can — before it’s too late.”

    Editors: Amy Snelling and Colum Murphy.

    (Header image: Ying Limin pets alpacas during her trip to New Zealand, April 2, 2015. Courtesy of Ying Limin)