The rapid expansion of China’s outbound tourism market is nothing new in the travel world. It’s well known that as China’s economy grows, the number of Chinese consumers traveling and spending abroad is rising along with it. But beyond the fact that China’s travel market is expanding, it’s important to look at who these travelers are and what drives them, especially as digital and social media platforms have taken off in China over the last decade.

Mailman X, a Shanghai-based agency focused on destination marketing for today’s Chinese outbound traveler, recognizes that the country’s appetite for digital and social media content is fueling a massive change in traveler behavior, research, and decision making. This shift should have major impacts on the ways destinations currently market to Chinese travelers, though often, destinations aren’t going far enough with their digital outreach.

“With new technology and better accessibility to a variety of travel digital resources, we are seeing a major shift to free independent travel (FIT) when it comes to researching and planning outbound travel. Chinese travelers are becoming more tech-savvy and want to explore the unknown. There is a large shift to wanting to ‘be first’ rather than follow the ‘been done.’ This is prevalent for the younger generation as they seek to share experiences across digital media,” said Devon Dow, global strategy director of Mailman X.

Digital, Social Media, and Pop Culture Drive Trends

To date, destinations are still too heavily focused on traditional trade marketing to attract today’s Chinese outbound travelers. Travel agents and tour operators, sales missions, trade shows, and familiarization tours are all too often thought of as the strongest outreach channels, while the digital side of marketing is overlooked. Focusing more on the traditional trade marketing side means missing out on attracting China’s increasingly free independent travelers who turn to digital, social, and pop culture for trip planning and inspiration.

These travelers are heading to WeChat, video platforms, user generated content channels such as Mafengwo and Fliggy, and other social media channels to find information, plan, book, and guide them through their trips. In August 2017, Fung Global Retail & Technology reported that 72 percent of Chinese travelers are influenced by digital media, such as travel websites, social media platforms, online travel agencies, and social trip planning platforms, while planning their overseas trips.

WeChat –– China’s leading social network, which recently surpassed 1 billion active monthly users worldwide –– has exploded in recent years, evolving into an ecosystem, or “super-app,” of its own. It’s been integrated into everyday life in China, whether it’s being used for social communication, information sharing, retail purchasing, or activity searching, and is an increasingly important tool for travel brands looking to attract the valuable Chinese outbound travel segment.

Beyond digital and social media, popular entertainment also influences how China’s outbound travelers get inspired. According to a 2017 Global Travel Destination Report by social trip-planning site Mafengwo, 24.5 percent of Chinese travelers are influenced by TV, film, and variety shows. This includes western shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones, which has increased the number of Chinese visitors to shooting locations such as Morocco, Iceland, Croatia, and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, a Chinese variety show called Divas Hit the Road, shot in Namibia, led to a 330 percent growth in interest in Namibia as a travel destination.

“Destinations need to listen to their target audience to create a business-to-consumer content strategy and develop engaging content across China’s digital platforms to capture the expanding free independent traveler market,” said Dow.

Chinese Outbound Travelers: Younger, More Independent, and Adventurous

Today’s Chinese travelers are increasingly diverse, but with a few common threads: the rising spending levels of millennial and post-90s (those born between 1990 and 1999) travelers, the shift away from group to free independent travel, as well as the diversification of activities from shopping to outdoor experiences.

Like so many other places in the world, China is being reshaped by its younger generation. According to Bloomberg Intelligence, 18- to 34-year-olds in China accounted for 60 percent of the country’s foreign travelers in 2016, making 82 million trips abroad and spending more than $150 billion. These travelers commonly seek out travel experiences that are often much more adventurous and farther away from China in distance than those of their parents’ generation.

Members of China’s post-90s generation are younger than the country’s sought-after millennials, but should not be underestimated. This so-called “More Generation” is known for being more educated and worldly than previous generations, as well as for having more sophisticated and influential tastes. Though they have yet to reach their peak earning potential, they already spend 35 percent of their income on international travel compared to the 28 percent other age groups spend, according to a 2017 report from Ipsos and Hotels.com. These younger travelers are expected to drive growth of the market in upcoming years as the social media content and entertainment they consume fuels decision making. As such, it’s vital that marketers understand their expectations when they travel, as well as how they decide where to go.

“As generations shift, it will be important for destinations to understand what type of content and digital channels will best resonate with each type of audience,” said Dow.

Millennial and post-90s travelers are driving the shift toward free independent travel. Group travel is still favored by 44 percent of Chinese outbound travelers, but close to 42 percent prefer to travel individually, according to the Ipsos and Hotels.com survey. Younger travelers’ preference for individual travel is especially notable, favored by 64 percent among those born between 1980 and 1999. The ubiquity of smartphones has helped fueled the rise of individual travel, giving travelers more control and autonomy on the go.

Chinese travelers are also shifting in how they spend their money. Despite common perceptions, Chinese travelers don’t just travel for shopping-related purposes. While it’s true that they do spend a large chunk of money on shopping –– at an average of 25 percent of their total overseas expenditures, according to a 2017 survey from Nielsen and Alipay –– they spend on other items as well. Accommodation, for example, makes up 19 percent of their expenditures, while spending on dining accounts for 16 percent.

Interest in outdoor activities is rising as shopping becomes less of a focus. The growing popularity of Nepal is an evident example. According to Jing Travel, China was ranked as the third-largest market for Nepal’s hiking tourism industry in 2016. Industry experts agree that there will most likely be an upsurge of Chinese traveler interest in cold-weather outdoor activities stimulated by Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

The ultimate lesson to draw is that today’s China’s outbound traveler audience is strikingly different from what it once was, largely due to digital’s role in how Chinese travelers learn about and decide on travel. Destination marketers need to rethink how they engage with this new generation of travelers and make digital a core part of their strategy. To get a free Chinese digital audit on your destination, visit Mailman X.

This content was created collaboratively by Mailman X and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.