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Demystifying the Chinese traveler
As 80 million Chinese pack their bags for an overseas trip in 2012, it's time to ask: "Who are they?"
In 2012 Chinese tourists are expected to take nearly 80 million international trips, spending US$80 billion in the process, according to the China Tourism Academy.
That's a lot of travel -- 8 percent of the total one billion international trips expected to be taken this year, in fact.
Many hospitality companies are preparing by offering Chinese-oriented tours and amenities. But what can the rest of the world expect?
Given that the Chinese received a bit of a bashing in the comments to our "Who are the world's worst travelers?" article, it's time to set the record straight about this oft-maligned nation of jetsetters.
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Most Chinese are not rich
There may soon be one million Chinese millionaires, but heading overseas is no longer just for China's wealthy.
The Connecticut-native whizzed through five European countries on a 10-day, US$2,200 tour last year with Chinese companions who included school teachers, low-level government workers and an accountant.
Wang Xinjun (王新军), founder of Ivy Alliance Consulting, rattles off some interesting statistics.
In the last year, 23 percent of Europe-bound Chinese travelers earned less than RMB 5,000 (US$793) per month; and 36 percent earn RMB 5,000-10,000 (US$793-US$1,587).
Students -- not the most "well-heeled" bunch in any country -- accounted for 11 percent of those travelers.
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“Chinese people have a tradition: they’ll appear rich on the road, but lead a very humble life at home,” notes Wang.
"Take a look at the travelers who spend tens of thousands of reminbi on shopping. Their accommodation and food are usually not that great."
What to expect in the future: Economy hotels will be packed with Chinese tourists in traditional Chinese travel seasons such as Spring Festival, summer vacations and early October. If you're also traveling at those times, consider booking early.
Shopping isn't as important as you think
Chinese tourists have a reputation for being shopaholics. And in some ways, that's true.
Chinese travelers accounted for 62 percent of the total amount spent on luxury goods in Europe in 2011. Last January they forked over a total of US$7.2 billion on luxury shopping worldwide.
However, surveys show that other pursuits are more important. According to Ivy Alliance, only 19 percent of Chinese travelers list “shopping” as a main purpose of travel.
Instead, “natural scenery” and “island getaway” are the two most important items.
The most popular nature destinations for Chinese tourists are Phuket, the Maldives, Bali and Hawaii.
"Chinese travel agencies do promote shopping-purposed tours for tourists and purchasing agents, known as 'sweeping goods tour' (扫货团)," says Jia Jianqiang (贾建强) of Kuxun, a Chinese travel site affiliated with TripAdvisor. "But these are not regular routes and are only available a few times a year."
What to expect in the future: Hong Kong, Paris and London will keep receiving undeterred Chinese shoppers, but many more Chinese travelers will explore classic natural settings.
Photography and Chinese food are vital
What annoys Chinese tourists? Restaurants that have no idea how to stir-fry -- and dead camera batteries.
“Everywhere we went in Europe we ate Chinese food,” says Osnos, who became desperate for Western food toward the end of his 10-day trip in Europe.
That doesn’t mean the Chinese completely shut their mouths to local cuisine. All they need is some guidance.
Osnos recalls a fellow traveler asking him to order a French meal for the group while dining at a Chinese restaurant in Paris.
In addition to food, the other critical item for Chinese travelers is a camera. “One line sums up Chinese tourists the best: sleeping on the bus; photographing off the bus,” says Jia.
Avid Chinese travelers often have little interest in relaxation and lazy sightseeing. Their top task is to photograph or be photographed, in order to flaunt their experiences to friends back home, Jia says.
What to expect in the future: The savviest Western restaurants will be ready to hand over fancy Chinese menus with tips for ordering dishes. Tourist sites will hike prices on cameras and accessories.
Group travel prevails, but independent travel is growing
Group travel used to be the only way abroad for Chinese tourists. It's still the most popular way to go -- language and cultural barriers and a complicated visa application process for Chinese encourage group travel.
Chinese tour groups normally aim to see the most famous places and cover the longest distance and as many countries as possible.
"That’s really a way of feeling you’ve done something worthwhile," comments Osnos. "And I do think they enjoy it."
Yet China is seeing a leap in independent tourism.
Around 42 percent of Chinese tourists now prefer independent travel to Europe, while 53 percent stick with conventional tour groups.
"I think group travel will still account for a high percentage of outbound travel because tourists from lower-tier cities are getting wealthier and want to see the world," says Tan Heng Hong of market research firm Mintel.
"As for those who have been aboard, they will go with small groups of friends or individually. Solo travel will also grow."
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Increasingly, like-minded travelers team up and approach a travel agency to craft a tailor-made route, such as a medical tour to Switzerland or a TV show tour to the United States.
What to expect in the future: Chinese tour groups will move faster with fewer group members. Foreign language-speaking Chinese will crowd the backpacking route through Europe, United States and Southeast Asia.
Guam: The new Maldives?
According to Mintel's 2011 analysis, Hong Kong, Macau and South Korea are the most popular international destinations for Chinese travelers.
The United States ranks the highest in the Western hemisphere at fifth overall. Russia leads the pack in Europe, listed 10th overall.
Southeast Asian and South Asian countries dominate the rest of the list.
Nearby tropical islands remain high on Chinese tourists' bucket lists.
Guam is the most likely new hot spot, predicts Wang Xinjun. "Chinese tourists love island getaways; you can tell from their passion for the Maldives," says Wang.
"Guam is a very nice destination, as well as a shopping paradise. During the past Spring Festival, Chinese tourists chartered 10 planes to fly to Guam."
What to expect in the future: Gaum's ubiquitous sushi bars and Korean barbecued meat joints will be replaced by hot pot and dumpling restaurants. Hospitality workers will say "Nihao" to any sort-of Chinese-looking face.
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