Xīn nián kuài lè! (Happy Chinese Lunar New Year, to those who celebrate.)
Yuwei Zhangzou represents a new type of Chinese tourist.
Last month, the Shanghai-based fashion influencer had close encounters with reindeer, visited Santa’s village and stayed in a glass-enclosed treehouse during a trip that she organised herself to Finland. Very little shopping was involved.
“I was hoping to get lucky and see the Northern Lights and I got it! I was happy,” she said.
As Chinese travellers gear up for the Lunar New Year holiday, which this year runs from Feb. 10 to 17, more of the people who can afford to travel abroad are eschewing the group tours and shop-til-you-drop holidays that were popular before the pandemic and opting for more adventurous, experience-based trips like Zhangzou’s, industry experts say.
“Independent travellers might be spending a bit more on travel and accommodation and so on, but they may well offset it by not spending as much in the luxury goods shops,” said Steve Saxon, a Shenzhen-based partner at McKinsey & Co.
“There’s a trend to be more active and that is flowing through into the types of trips people want to take,” he added. “You don’t just go to Thailand, you go to Thailand to do a kayaking or diving trip. Or if you go to Europe, you’re going to ski.”
While a record high number of Chinese will be holidaying at home amid a lacklustre economy, a smaller, wealthier but still significant number of Chinese are opting for adventure, gourmet or cultural holidays abroad as flight schedules, and visa processing times, return to their pre-pandemic “normal”.
China’s international travel recovery remains a tick under 70% of 2019 levels, McKinsey’s Saxon said, and that percentage would be higher without the United States, where levels are at just 19% of pre-pandemic levels due to limited flight capacity and geopolitical tensions.
On flights between Europe and China, seat bookings are at 93% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the data, independent travelers, rather than tour groups, driving the increase.
Zhou Weihong, deputy general manager at Shanghai-headquartered Spring Tour, the tour agency arm of budget airline Spring Airlines, said its Lunar New Year offers for Europe sold out weeks before the festival, even though prices remain above pre-pandemic levels.
Trips that involve a chance to see the Northern Lights have been particularly popular, Zhou added.
Globally, more younger travellers have embraced the trend towards more bespoke, “special interest” holidays since the pandemic ended, and Trip.com, China’s largest online travel agency, has taken note.
Chief Executive Jane Sun told Reuters the agency was changing its approach to group tour offers to accommodate travellers’ desire for more independence and flexibility.
“Consumer behavior is changing. So we have new products… private tours where the family will hire a driver, a tour guide, and design their own tour. For young families, these are very popular,” Sun said, adding that such trips were growing in the “triple digits”.
Younger travellers were gravitating to trips focused on meditation, cooking or photography, Sun said. Trip.com data shows popular outbound destinations for this year’s Lunar New Year holiday include Southeast Asia, Japan and Australia.
European luxury brands that relied on big-spending Chinese tourists for growth before the pandemic have resigned themselves to making fewer sales to Chinese travellers. Last month, Louis Vuitton owner LVMH CFO Jean-Jacques Guiony told analysts sales to Chinese consumers in France were at about 70% of 2019 levels.
“It’s not the same customers, fewer groups, much more independent travelers with a higher worth,” he said. “We don’t see the big bus loads of Chinese customers coming in groups.”
For fashion influencer Zhangzou, the less packaged and more off the beaten track the holiday, the better.
This year, she is planning a safari trip to Kenya over the summer, and maybe a trip to Mexico or Cuba before Christmas.”In 2023 ,I went to places I was familiar with, 2024 for me is about going somewhere different, I want to do some new things,” she said.
(Reporting by Casey Hall and Sophie Yu; editing by Miral Fahmy)
The Daily Newsletter
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Photo credit: Travellers walk with their luggage past a display showing departure flights information at the Beijing Capital International Airport, during the Spring Festival travel rush ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year, in Beijing, China February 2, 2024. REUTERS/Florence Lo/File photo