2016/01/01

Around the world, in a year

China’s outbound tourism took off in 2015. Yang Feiyue and Li Jing review the trends and developments.

Overseas travel exploded like a roman candle in 2015.

The number of outbound Chinese travelers is expected to surpass 120 million by the New Year, 16 percent more than in 2014.

Relaxed policies for Chinese seeking visas, a stronger yuan and air routes' expansion steered more Chinese abroad in 2015 than in any year prior-for the fourth consecutive year.

(The country became the No 1 source of outbound tourists in 2012, the United Nations' World Tourism Organization reports.)

Rising disposable incomes plus mounting life and work pressures are also impelling outbound tourism, UK-headquartered market-analysis company Euromonitor International says.

About 50 countries and regions have waived visas or relaxed requirements for Chinese.

And the United States, South Korea and Japan extended the validity of multiple-entry visas for Chinese this year.

Countries like Australia and the United Kingdom are expected to follow in 2016.

Beijinger Zhang Haoran visited South Korea's Jeju and Indonesia's Bali this year.

He says he chose those islands because they don't require visas.

Zhang is currently deciding between Greece and Turkey for his Spring Festival trip abroad.

"You have to book early to save money," he says.

Shopping

The rise of the yuan against many currencies, despite an adjustment this year, has also enabled Chinese to save money when traveling.

It's still much stronger against the US dollar and the euro than in the past, World Tourism Cities Federation deputy secretary-general Li Baochun points out.

Also, many countries have offered tax rebates, he says.

The yuan depreciation's impact is less likely to be felt in such popular destinations as Japan, South Korea, Australia and eurozone countries, whose own currencies have fallen sharply, the Sydney-based Center for Asia-Pacific Aviation says.

Cheaper luxury items and consumer goods are also luring Chinese abroad.

Such high-end products as watches, suitcases, clothes, wine and electronic devices cost 72 percent more on the Chinese mainland than in France and 51 percent more than in the United States, Ministry of Commerce data show.

About 88 percent of the $164.8 billion Chinese spent overseas last year-a fourfold increase over 2008-was on shopping, reports the China Tourism Academy, a research institution affiliated with the China National Tourism Administration.

Chinese spent $16 billion yuan abroad this October, when spending spiked because of the weeklong National Day holiday.

A primary destination was Japan, due to proximity, the yen's fall and consumption-tax eliminations on many goods.

About 400,000 Chinese spent about $833.7 million in the neighboring nation during the National Day Golden Week.

They spent about $8.9 billion in Japan during the first nine months, up 165 percent year-on-year, Japanese media report.

Chinese visitors to Japan doubled in 2015's first 10 months to 4.3 million, Japan Travel Agency reports. It expects the number to break 5 million by year-end.

South Korea remained a top destination, despite a dip surrounding the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, thanks to visa relaxations for Chinese and tourism promotions.

About 210,000 Chinese arrived in South Korea over the National Day holiday, up 30 percent over the same period last year, the country's tourism authority reports.

The 2015 total is expected to reach 6.5 million, South Korea's tourism authority predicts.

About 4 million Chinese arrived in Thailand in the first six months of the year, a 110 percent increase over the same period in 2014, the country's tourism authority's data show.

Spending surged 140 percent to $53.5 million.

But the biggest spending surprise came from Australia, where Chinese spent $7.7 billion last year. The tourism authority had forecast Chinese spending would reach $7.4 billion by 2020.

Chinese visits increased about 20 percent and are expected to reach 1 million annually soon, Tourism Research Australia says.

Russia's weaker rouble helped coax over 200,000 Chinese in 2015's first six months.

They spent $1 billion in Russia last year, when 410,000 visited.

More flights

Expanding air links are another point of connection with outbound travelers' rising numbers.

International-flight capacity increased 20 percent year-on-year this November alone, when nearly 300,000 flights departed from Chinese airports for domestic and international destinations, aviation-industry-data company OAG reports.

South Korea and Japan wield the most capacity.

Vietnam's is growing fastest.

Smaller markets are also developing rapidly, as Chinese carriers expand international services while other countries' airlines work to lure more Chinese, OAG says.

Countries that launched direct flights to China this year include Belarus, the Czech Republic and Fiji.

Others like Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan expanded capacity by more than 20 percent in the first 11 months of 2015 compared with the same period last year.

These Western and Central Asian countries are part of the Belt and Road Initiative Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in 2013 to enhance transport across Asia and Europe. The CNTA designated 2015 the Year or Silk Road Travel.

Perhaps ironically, the growth of domestic tourism has in turn pushed travel outbound.

As wanderlust keeps pace with increasing disposable incomes, domestic destinations are often overcrowded, especially during holidays. Such intensive demand pushes up prices.

"It costs about as much to travel overseas as it does to in China," Zhang says.

Cheaper flights enable him to tour other countries for less than 10,000 yuan ($1,500).

This means he doesn't have to choose between exploring Greece's Acropolis or hot-air ballooning over Turkey's Capadoccian Valley-ultimately.

"I can do one this year and the other the next," he says.

Heading into 2016, there are no signs the waves of Chinese traveling overseas are losing momentum.

Rather, they seem likely to swell.

The Roman candle may burn hotter next year.