Whether China manages to keep Omicron out of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games will likely help determine its future reopening timeline, more so than its new five-year tourism plan, which makes fewer references to outbound travel.
China’s inbound and outbound travel may remain restricted, but a post-Covid isolationist approach hasn’t prevented it from planning for the future of its tourism sector as a key pillar of the Chinese economy.
By 2025, China’s domestic market — particularly rural tourism, including cultural and outdoor recreation — will have progressed and developed “vigorously.” But inbound and outbound tourism will be prioritized step by step and “under the premise that the international pandemic is effectively controlled.”
That’s the key message from China’s five-year tourism development plan for 2021-2025, released by China’s State Council just a fortnight before the Beijing Winter Olympics kick off on February 4.
The 25-page digital version of the report makes fewer references to inbound and outbound visitation than it does to domestic travel, pointing to a focus that will be largely inward in development in the short-term. Talk of the international travel market begins about 20 pages in, and points generally to improving inbound services for tourists, cooperating on outbound tourism with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, and deepening tourism collaboration and cultural exchanges with major countries.
Still, China travel experts believe it’s a positive sign that the Chinese government is discussing outbound travel at all.
“The fact that China’s State Council is publicly addressing outbound tourism as part of its Five-Year Tourism Plan is important,” said Alina Xiang, CEO of East West Marketing, a digital tourism marketing firm specializing in China. “As much as we’d like it to happen overnight or following the Winter Olympics, the return of China outbound travel will be methodical and gradual.”
For the travel industry in China, the plan is a positive sign that tourism as a sector is addressed at length as part of the country’s development goals.
“The plan focuses on tourism not just as a source of economic development, but also its impact on and intersection with culture, technology, ecology, and international exchange,” said Sienna Parulis-Cook, director of marketing and communications at marketing solutions firm Dragon Trail International.
“In this way, we can see that the Chinese government recognizes the importance of tourism and what a significant and wide-reaching impact tourism can have,” Parulis-Cook added.
A Domestic Tourism Push
China’s domestic tourism discussion, which the plan prioritizes, points to pushing for cities as well as rural areas to embrace local tourism and “standardize” tourism development as an engine for economic growth, as well as encourage the use of space and nature to beautify and offer recreational opportunities for locals.
Additional major takeaways from China’s tourism plan for the next five years include:
- Recognition that the local demand for tourism has shifted since Covid from “low-level” to high-quality and diversified tourism, as it’s not just about sightseeing, but also about leisure vacations
- Independent road trips will be encouraged, as well as the development of a camping network, and encourage sharing economy services, such as car and apartment rentals for independent trips
- Creating eco-tourism offerings, including a nature reserve system that centers national parks, and enhancing traveler environmental education
- Accelerating the use of innovative technology for tourism-related services
The huge focus on domestic tourism for the next five years comes as little surprise given the pandemic and China’s zero-Covid tolerance approach these past two years.
But Dragon Trail’s Parulis-Cook said the backyard focus is also logical given that the amount of inbound and outbound tourism is actually small compared to the size of China’s domestic market, despite the fact that China has had the world’s largest outbound market for years pre-pandemic.
“Especially in a country where the majority of citizens do not have passports (and not to mention the current travel restrictions!), it is very logical to place the most emphasis on domestic tourism,” said Parulis-Cook.
“This impacts the greatest number of Chinese people, both as consumers and service providers, and can very positively affect China’s economy and development.”
Rural trips in China are set to continue rising in spite of Covid’s stops and restarts. Interest in nature based vacations increased by 265 percent in the first half of 2021 compared to the prior year, according to Trip.com.
Glamping emerged as the major travel trend among the Chinese, a finding from Dragon Trail International, pointing to the ruralization of travel at a global level as discussed in Skift’s Megatrends 2022.
Recent figures from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture now confirm a year-on-year increase of 12.8 percent for domestic tourism in 2021 according to the China Daily, or about 54 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Domestic tourism is expected to bounce back to close to 70 percent of pre-Covid levels this year, with a 27 percent increase in tourism revenue to 3.8 trillion yuan.
Well-Being and Sustainability Through Tourism
In its new five-year tourism plan, the government also recognizes tourism as a tool for improving quality of life and one’s well-being and security, noting that in the preceding five years, the average Chinese took more than four trips a year while inbound and outbound travel exceeded 300 million.
The state says it now aims to educate Chinese travelers on sustainability, as well as push for the development of national parks and reserves.
“This is a newer priority for China,” said East West Marketing’s Xiang, on the references to sustainable tourism education in the plan. “China’s outbound tourism market is young in comparison to the U.S., and responsible tourism is still unfamiliar to many Chinese tourists,” said Xiang. “Therefore, educating Chinese tourists to conduct more responsible and green travel is critical to reshaping visitation patterns.”
A Turning Point Could Lie Ahead
Domestic tourism will continue to sit on a whole new pedestal for China just as it will for parts of the world with ease of backyard movement. There’s no timeline in the plan for a wider reopening but the success of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games in terms of containing the Omicron variant could mark a turning point for the country’s approach towards the resumption of inbound and outbound tourism.
Xiang expects the Chinese government to publicly share an update late March or early April, as “this gives China time to assess the course of the pandemic and how neighboring Asian countries are doing with case numbers following their own reopenings.”
For now, Omicron is looming over locals’ travel plans for the Chinese New Year and the 2022 Spring Festival period stretching over the next 40 days, not to mention the threat of Omicron to the Beijing Olympics event, the second Games to be hosted without international spectators and mired in controversy over human rights related boycotts from the West.
Flight bookings for the highly anticipated holiday period were reported down by more than 75 percent because of the variant, according to ForwardKeys data and as reported by the Skift Daily Lodging Report on Wednesday. But those numbers could bounce back quickly in the weeks ahead as restrictions are now easing in certain parts of the country.
Meanwhile, as destinations await for the world’s highest spending tourists to return and mull the ways in which their preferences have shifted, China’s five-year tourism plan seems to indicate that outbound tourism’s return will be gradual indeed and that a fuller recovery may not happen until 2025, in line with the projected fuller bounce back of global tourism.
“While this news can often feel like a ‘sit and wait’ approach, there is a plan and wheels are in motion,” said Xiang. “What destinations can do now is prepare. Demand is very strong. Destinations who are active in the market will lead the competition once the border reopens.”
UPDATED: This story was updated to include comments from Dragon Trail International.
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Photo credit: China plans to prioritize boosting its domestic tourism market for the next five years. Joe Hart / Flickr Commons