Chengdu is quickly establishing itself as one of the biggest hubs for Chinese outbound travel. Photo: Shutterstock

Editor’s note: This story has been updated due to a reinstated press embargo on the report’s findings. A previous version of this story contained more insights and data. We will update this story with more report insights and data when the embargo is lifted again.

New data from Ctrip is illustrating how rapidly Chinese travel is changing. The two most obvious trends illustrated in the report is the rising importance of independent travel and the growth of lower-tier cities as tourism source markets. 2017 was also the year China became the world’s largest tourism source market with 129 million outbound trips.

Ctrip’s data shows how the Chinese travel industry is undergoing dramatic change

It’s important to note that many of the conclusions in the new report from Ctrip are based on Ctrip’s data and is not representative of all macro trends in the Chinese travel industry. Nonetheless, given the increasingly digital nature of Chinese travel, the findings still provide valuable insights into Chinese travel as a whole.

Of particular note is how Ctrip users in 2017 were almost evenly divided between group and independent travel. Free independent travelers (FITs) tend to utilize online resources to independently plan and book trips.

Thus, it is unsurprising that such a large portion of Ctrip users are independent travelers. Many group travelers still utilize brick and mortar travel agencies to arrange travel.

For Ctrip users in 2017, independent was almost as popular as group travel

Unsurprisingly, travelers from lower-tier cities preferred group travel over independent travel. Growth in spending power and global connectivity in lower-tier Chinese cities has set the stage for a new wave of Chinese travelers. With little travel experience and often without English or other foreign language skills, group tours often prove to be a more attractive, “safer” option for these newer travelers.

The most developed regions in China are still the most important tourism source markets, but as we at Jing Travel noted last year, lower-tier cities will be the long-term drivers of growth and this new data from Ctrip largely confirms this outlook. Air connectivity in these cities is a key driver of this growth.

Second-tier cities like Xi’an and Changsha are fast-growing outbound travel markets

Beijing was the number one departure city for Chinese outbound tourists using Ctrip, but Chengdu in Sichuan Province ranked second. Moreover, Changsha and Xi’an are rapidly becoming more significant drivers of Chinese outbound tourism.

Chinese Ctrip customers traveling abroad from Xi’an and Changsha jumped a whopping 323 percent and 235 percent in 2017. In terms of per capita spending, however, more developed cities like Beijing and Shanghai still lead the pack.

Tourists out of Beijing had the highest per capita spending overall

Ctrip’s user data also illustrates how Chinese travelers are becoming more adventurous in terms of destinations. However, the data also illustrates a substantial divergence in the behavior of Chinese travelers as a whole and Ctrip’s users. No doubt older and less-experienced travelers, who are more likely to book packaged tours, are more likely to go to more conventional destinations like Thailand or Japan.

Overall, Thailand and Japan were the most popular foreign destinations on Ctrip in 2017. But Chinese tourism via Ctrip to less conventional destinations like the UAE and Egypt grew substantially.

While valuable, this data illustrates that the travel habits of Ctrip users still differs substantially from the broader Chinese travel market

This should serve as an important reminder that despite Ctrip’s status as China’s more important online travel agency (OTA), the behavior and tastes of its customers are not wholly representative of the entire Chinese market. Ctrip users are probably, as a whole, more experienced and comfortable with independent travel and farther-flung destinations.

However, arguably these younger, more experienced travelers that Ctrip caters too will soon be the most important demographics for the overall development and growth of Chinese outbound travel and by far more important to global tourism stakeholders as a revenue source than group travelers.