If trade tensions between China and the US continue, Chinese outbound tourism is going to suffer. But it’s not just tariffs causing the current economic insecurity that could dampen tourism profits—there are concerns about the overall market that are even more important, as it seems more and more likely that the biggest drivers of outbound tourism—China’s burgeoning middle class—will become less able to budget for travel in the future.
There are no guarantees that these reasons will cause a downturn in the Chinese travel market, and they may very well be overcome over the next few years. Nonetheless, travel industry players need to realize that a downturn or slowdown in Chinese tourism growth—both in terms of trips and spending—is possible because of three main factors. These factors partly help explain why Chinese spending per trip declined by 14 percent in the first half of this year, even as the number of trips continued to rise.
1. The Trade War and the Yuan
Nowhere is the impact of the trade war on tourism more apparent than the continued depreciation of the yuan. Some experts even believe that the yuan is now “Asia’s weakest currency.” The exchange rate for U.S. dollars to Chinese yuan (RMB) sits at 6.92, as of October 16. This isn’t astronomically high, but the rapid nature of the yuan’s depreciation is perhaps the travel market’s biggest cause of concern. The yuan depreciated from around 6.3 to the dollar to 6.9 between August 2015 and December 2016, which is a roughly 16-month period. The current depreciation trend has made a similar drop in value, but only over the course of a mere six months.
The depreciation since the yuan’s recent peak in April 2018 at around 6.3 to the dollar represents a value drop of around 9 percent. This means that when Chinese tourists go abroad, they effectively have 9 percent less buying power. Of course, this isn’t spread evenly across the board. Fortunately for European destinations, the yuan has not experienced as much of a drop compared to the Euro, falling only by about 3.75 percent over that same period. Nevertheless, a drop is a drop.
The U.S. trade war is the biggest factor behind the yuan’s decline this year, although it seems unlikely that the People’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank, is devaluing the currency simply to get a leg up in the trade war. It doesn’t hurt, of course, in boosting exports, which posted strong growth in September. Even if a weak yuan is helping China survive the trade war, most analysts do not believe the Chinese government will let it go into a full slide or breach the 7 yuan to the dollar mark this year. The fall of the yuan likely has more to do with overall trade war pressure and a stronger dollar and less to do with official monetary policy.
Overall, the biggest threat to tourism isn’t a weakened yuan—it’s rising household debt. For many Chinese consumers, owning property is the only viable investment opportunity, even though the Chinese government has attempted to shore up the country’s stock markets with continued mixed results. Intense interest in home-buying among Chinese consumers has led to house prices ballooning faster than the increase in real wages, meaning that many Chinese consumers are racking up debt. The ratio of household debt to GDP reached a record high of 49.1 percent last year, an increase of 20 percentage points over the past five years.
While there is no guarantee that this debt will lead to economic catastrophe, it should at least slow down spending growth as Chinese consumers grapple with debt repayments. To make matters worse, real estate prices have actually seen a major decline in some cities this year, with some current homeowners even protesting discounts and price cuts from property developers for new homes. With property accounting for 70 percent of the average urban family’s assets, major declines in property prices are nothing short of devastating, especially when outstanding debt continues to accrue interest.
3. Bills, Bills, Bills
It’s not just mortgages that are putting pressure on China’s middle class. One key gauge of prices, the consumer price index (CPI), is rising slightly faster than analysts initially expected this year. It’s not a crisis in and of itself, but it doesn’t help Chinese tourists when budgeting for travel. Rent is still a particularly big burden for China’s urban middle class (or those attempting to vault into the middle class). Prices for other key goods and services, such as healthcare and education, are also rising. Meanwhile, the growth of the median disposable income in Chinese households continues to slow. In the first half of 2018, median disposable income grew by 8.4 percent, an impressive figure. But it grew by a whopping 13.7 percent in the first half of 2014.
All of these factors indicate that while growth in outbound travel will continue, that growth will likely slow down going forward.