The way to Chinese travelers' wallets may be via their stomachs. Availability of food amenable to the Chinese palate is a top concern for Chinese business and leisure travelers, and catering to needs such as hot, potable water can make a difference in their choices of airlines and hotels.
We start with regular reports from Beijing and Singapore, and look for us to add cities around the world shortly. Gateway Beijing and Gateway Singapore, for example, signify that the reporters are writing from those cities although their coverage of the business of travel will meander to other locales in their regions. Read about the series here, and check out all the stories in the series here.
The room was filled with travel agents, all in a position to start turning on their clients to a relatively new destination for travelers from China: the Philippines, which at the time was only receiving about 100,000 Chinese tourists per year, compared to one million in Thailand.
Choosing to focus on the island paradise of Palawan, the official began showing photos of two resorts on the island. The white sand beaches and cerulean blue waters were well-received. But the official then showed photos of the resorts’ restaurants: empty chairs, empty tables, and no food.
The agents began to mutter and look at each other. To a Chinese travel agent – or traveler – an empty restaurant is probably empty because it isn’t good, and a Chinese travel rule of thumb is if you’re looking for a decent restaurant in a city you don’t know, go with a place that’s crowded.
“Food is a very important consideration for Chinese travelers. According to a recent Hotels.com survey, cuisine is the third most important option Chinese travelers consider after safety and presence of historical sites — it even came in ahead of shopping,” said Liz Flora, editor in chief of Jing Daily, a digital publication on luxury consumer trends in China.
In the survey, Chinese travelers weighted cuisine (8 percent) as the third most important option after safety (18 percent) and historical sites (14 percent) when picking a destination. Shopping came in at 6 percent.
“The destinations that have an advantage in attracting Chinese travelers for the food tend to be the ones that are known for items that have parallels in Chinese cuisine. For example, seafood and fresh fruit are both a major draw for Chinese tourists to tropical locations, while a resort representative in Bali once told me that trying the local suckling pig was one of the most important activities on Chinese guests’ lists,” Flora said.
With over 100 million Chinese travelers going abroad every year now, and with that number potentially reaching 200 million by 2020, addressing their drinking and eating preferences is of great importance to those hoping to welcome them.
One simple example. is boiled water. Most Chinese, especially older Chinese, do not drink cold drinks, and carry bottles of boiled hot water as their beverage of choice. Kettles for boiling water or making tea are provided in almost every hotel room in China and on Chinese airlines, and the availability of boiled water also allows for the quick preparation of instant noodles or other portable meals.
Hilton Hotels and Resorts is one company that looks to serve the market in this way, with its “Hilton Huanying” (haunying being Mandarin for “welcome”) program, started in 2011, to include kettles, Chinese tea, and slippers to make Chinese travelers more at home.
“Very picky,” is how one travel operator described her compatriots and their food requirements. “They really only love Chinese food. They may eat local food for one or two days, but then they will definitely want Chinese food,” said Meijin Chen, marketing director of Naturenuts Adventure Travel Co., a U.S.-based specialty travel provider. She estimates that such requirements add $60-$70 per person per day to the cost of their trips, to ensure sourcing of Chinese dishes either from restauranhts able to cater, or hiring a Chinese chef to accompany their clients to more remote areas.
“I worry that I may not like the food when I travel abroad, but it wouldn’t stop me from going there,” said Sherry Qiu, a Beijing-based advertising executive, who in the past two years has visited destinations including Italy, Morocco, Singapore, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States, sometimes with her elderly parents in tow. Qiu said she can go a week, maximum two, without Chinese food while away from China. Her parents bring rice with them when traveling, in case they don’t care for their local options.
“I don’t like most Western food. It’s too greasy. And I really don’t like the taste of cheese,” said Amanda Zhang, an editor from Beijing who travels to the U.S. regularly on business. Zhang said she eats only Chinese or Asian food she’s almost always able to find a variety of Chinese options in and around major American cities, and even in places where people might not expect: “There’s a good Sichuan restaurant near Yellowstone National Park,” she said.
What happens if Zhang finds herself in a location with no Asian options? “I can go to McDonald’s if I really have to,” she added.
Based in Beijing, Steven Schwankert has 20 years’ experience writing about technology and culture in Greater China. Fluent in Mandarin, Schwankert edits an English language lifestyle and entertainment publication, the Beijinger.
Free Daily Newsletter
Sign up for the most popular Skift daily download of news, happening, and headlines in the travel world
Photo credit: Hilton’s Huanying Chinese traveler program is among the efforts by various hotels and airlines to cater to Chinese travelers' culinary needs, a key priority in their hotel and airline choices. Hilton