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WTTC 2014 Comment: China’s outbound tourism is just starting
Professor Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), explains the reality behind headline figures on China's booming tourism sector
China’s spectacular economic growth over the last three decades has brought the Chinese people back to a position as one of the leading cultures in the world, a position which the Chinese enjoyed until the rise of the West a couple of centuries ago.
Since 2012 China can also claim to be the biggest international outbound tourism source market.
In 2014, one out of ten border crossings in international travel will take place across the border of mainland China (although in more than half the cases these end in the Special Administrative Regions of Macau and Hong Kong).
Even more than usual in tourism, all numbers connected to Chinese outbound tourism have to be taken as indicators rather than exact figures.
However, there is no doubt that the wave of Chinese tourists, spending more per person and per day than almost any other customer group and exploring ever more exotic locations out of ever more different motives, has just started.
Less than 5% of Chinese citizens are reported to own a passport. The 97 million border crossings in 2013 should not be confused with 97 million travellers.
There are many frequent travellers as well as some Chinese passport holders crossing several hundred times a year, for instance from Shenzhen to Hong Kong to work or from China into Russian or Vietnamese border towns to trade.
If we consider there to be 40-50 million different persons involved (one of the basic numbers nobody seems to have reliable data about) this would still represent less than 4% of the Chinese population.
Chinese statistics also do not disclose the composition of the €97 billion spent on international travel. But even if this number includes international airfares, China is still way ahead of any other international tourism source market, when at the same time it represents less than €80 per head for international tourism for the Chinese population.
The Chinese do travel, taking on average more than two trips a year, but this is domestic tourism.
The more than three billion domestic trips in 2013 include day trips and represent less than €100 expenditure per trip compared with the average €1,000 expenditure per trip for outbound travel.
With diminishing numbers of foreigners travelling for leisure to a China increasingly perceived as polluted, over-crowded and expensive, it is no surprise that Chinese tour operators are paying ever more attention to the outbound sector.
However, tour operators have to face the fact that many of the more affluent and frequent travellers tend to move beyond the package tour to customised tours or do not bother any more to use outbound tour operators but trust 'travel clubs' or private contacts as go-betweens.
Chinese long-haul outbound travel is not about holidays. Travelling for relaxation takes place inside China or in nearby destinations like South Korea.
Outbound travel is still first of all an investment - in prestige, in gaining knowledge, in social standing as well as self-esteem and sometimes also in getting an education or buying property.
For this reason even a slowing Chinese economy will not result in a major decrease in the growth of outbound travel, as figures for the first quarter of 2014 (+17%) indicate.
By 2020 COTRI forecasts the number of border crossings will be slightly above 200 million, with more than 30 million trans-continental trips ending outside Asia.

Expenditure is forecast to grow slightly faster, reaching a level above €230 billion (in 2013 prices), with more than €40 billion spent on trips ending outside Asia.
  Source: Travel Weekly

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