While China's borders are open, group tours are limited. And with reduced flights and visa-processing constraints, global travel will continue to miss the spend and impact of the Chinese traveler.
China’s travel borders are open, yet its group tours segment remains limited to less than half of the countries available to Chinese travelers before the pandemic.
That’s according to Sienna Parulis-Cook, director of marketing and communications for Dragon Trail International, a marketing solutions company based in China. She explained that Chinese groups can travel only to countries with an Approved Destination Status (ADS) agreement with China, as approved by the Chinese government.
In January 2019, some 130 countries and territories had these ADS agreements. During the pandemic, Chinese travel agencies were banned from selling outbound group or package travel. In February 2023, travel agencies were again permitted to sell group and package travel, but only to a pilot list of 20 countries. An additional 40 countries were added in March.
“Currently, one-quarter of the 60 countries where Chinese can travel as part of a group tour or to which they can buy a travel package are in Africa,” said Parulis-Cook.
Chinese outbound travel has been recovering gradually, with border crossings reaching nearly 65% of 2019’s levels during the country’s last national holiday period for the Dragon Boat Festival at the end of June. Data for group outbound trips for 2023 was unavailable.
As of March 2023, there were around 4,200 Chinese travel agencies licensed to sell outbound travel, down from 4,442 in April 2019, Parulis-Cook said
“We anticipate that China might revert to the previous ADS system rather than the current list of 60 countries for group and package travel later this year, which will open up the market to cover the rest of the world. This will benefit many countries, including the U.S,” said Parulis-Cook.
Skift recently reported that some 3 million Chinese travelers spent $35 billion in the U.S. in 2019.
Chinese citizens are free to travel to the U.S. as tourists, and they can buy individual travel products, like a flight ticket or a hotel booking, from a Chinese travel agency, but Chinese travel agencies cannot sell any group tour products to the U.S.
Gradual Recovery, North Africa Drawcard
Africa is a small but growing beneficiary. Pre-pandemic data shared by CTrip for the first half of 2018 showed that 59% of Chinese travelers to Africa joined package tours, and the other 41% chose to travel as foreign independent travelers or used Ctrip’s customized travel service. Most Chinese travelers (96%) stayed in Africa for over seven days.
“The U.S. will continue to be a top choice for Chinese travelers, particularly for leisure travel and visiting friends and relatives. Africa, meanwhile, is an emerging destination with particular appeal for experienced Chinese travelers looking for new experiences and adventures,” said Parulis-Cook.
Dragon Trail’s April 2023 Chinese Traveler Sentiment Survey showed Egypt as the top destination for travel to Africa. The North African country was also the most popular destination in Africa for Chinese tourism before the pandemic.
Africa appeals to Chinese travelers for cultural as well as natural destinations. Safari tourism is popular in destinations like Kenya and South Africa, whereas North African countries appeal because of their ancient history, Parulis-Cook added.
Many African countries have been proactive in reactivating in-person activities with the Chinese travel trade early.
For example, South African Tourism has been organizing in-person events for the travel trade in cities throughout China since February 2023, according to Michael Jones, Founder of Create Consulting, based in Beijing.
Jones added that South Africa and Kenya were a few of the African countries spending money to promote themselves in China.
His clients also saw a notable uptick in multi-generation travel and a push towards a more budget-centered group safari offering.
“Older Chinese people are being very adventurous and brave,” added Jones. “They’re going to really off the beaten track kind of places in these groups. They’re traveling with their grandchildren, in groups, and being happy to reconnect.”
Jones said while the “sexy Chinese traveler most focused on was the younger bling, bling market,” he believed “China’s middle-class retirees should not be overlooked and was the more sustainable market” to build group travel products for.
“It’s an aging country, and there’s a lot of them. That’s a really beautiful market,” said Jones.
China – Middle East Flight Hub
Parulis-Cook said that China’s international flight capacity is continuing to improve, though this is uneven among different countries and regions, and it is notably lacking for the U.S.
ForwardKeys‘ flight data further showed that Africa and the Middle East had increased China’s seat capacity to 75% of 2019 levels. The market share, however, is small, as only 6% of total international capacity is from China. For the week of 5-11 June, 1.6% of flights from China were to destinations in Africa, and 4.6% were to the Middle East.
The United Arab Emirates is the best-connected destination in its region, with a 44% share. At the same time, the number of seats between China and Kenya has doubled since 2019, driven by Kenya Airways. Egypt has also experienced a +10% growth, with Egypt Air and Sichuan Airlines significantly increasing seat numbers in China.
China’s capacity to the Americas in quarter two had recovered to under 6% of pre-pandemic seat levels, as many airlines have yet to restore their capacity in the China-US market.
So far, there are only 24 weekly flights between China and the U.S. For the week of 5-11 June, 1.2% of international flights from China were to destinations in North America, according to ForwardKeys data.
The limits on flights are because China and the U.S. have a reciprocal air traffic agreement in place, and as long as U.S. carriers do not add flights, Chinese carriers cannot either, said Parulis-Cook.
In Dragon Trail’s Chinese Outbound Travel Trade Survey, released in July, 43% of surveyed travel agents said North America had a high potential for travel trade sales in 2024, compared to 24% choosing Africa. About 65% of the surveyed travel agents sell travel to North America, compared to 51% selling travel to Africa.
Obstacles to Recovery
Chinese travel agents surveyed also identified visas as the biggest obstacle in selling outbound tourism in 2024.
“Chinese outbound tourism to the U.S. is very constricted at present because of flight capacity (and its impact on flight prices), visa delays, and the fact that group and package tourism cannot be sold,” said Parulis-Cook.
Visa policy varies throughout Africa, depending on the country. For example, Morocco and Zambia are visa-free, while Egypt and Kenya offer e-visas.
South Africa’s e-visa system is under severe strain, especially for China, with only an estimated 3% of applications granted, as staffing constraints and tech challenges all compound processing issues.
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