The news is often full of encouraging statistics about the ever-growing number of outbound Chinese tourists and their spending. However, this in itself presents a unique problem for tourism stakeholders. Fundamentally, the different methodologies and sources of this data lead to wildly different numbers. The biggest sources of data at macro-level of the Chinese tourism market are the China Tourism Academy (CTA), the Ministry Culture and Tourism (MCT), and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNTWO). Of course, a certain amount of inaccuracy is to be expected in all statistics, and these studies are usually done in good faith. However, the numbers various official organizations present can be substantially different and require a certain amount of scrutiny to be assessed. Otherwise, they can wildly mislead tourism industry stakeholders.

The numbers regarding Chinese tourism vary wildly, even between official sources

One of the most obvious sets of numbers that differs substantially between different parties is the number of outbound Chinese tourists. For 2016, the China National Tourism Administration (now under the umbrella of the MCT), put the number of outbound Chinese trips at 122 million, up from 117 million 2015 or an increase of 9.4 percent. Alternatively, the UNWTO estimated a similar growth rate of 9.7 percent. However, this resulted in a total of 135 million outbound trips for 2016, with 127.9 million made in 2015.

That means the difference in the estimated outbound trips from the two top authorities for the number of trips is a whopping 10.9 million. The exact cause for the discrepancy in the number of tourist trips is hard to tack down.

The large difference between the number Chinese tourist trips according to the UNWTO and CTA may lie in how each organization defines a “tourist”

Of course, without being able to have full access to the statistics used and the methodology they were derived from, it’s challenging to determine exactly where this large divergence in numbers arises from. The Chinese government is notoriously tight-lipped about the nature of its statistics and the UNWTO depends on other tourism statistics sources with different methodology and criteria, which is also obscured. However, it likely comes down to different definitions of “tourist.”

The differences in these two parties’ data are even more apparent when examining figures for outbound tourist expenditure.

For 2016, the CTA put the amount of Chinese tourist spending abroad at $109.8 billion, which increased by 5 percent to $115.29 billion in 2017. The UNWTO put these figures much higher. For 2016, the UNWTO estimated that total Chinese outbound tourism spending was $261 billion in 2017. In 2018, the UNWTO estimated that total Chinese outbound spending was $258 billion in 2017, a decrease of $3 billion or 1.1 percent. However, the UNWTO cited this as a 5 percent increase in April this year.

The estimates of Chinese tourist spending by Chinese authorities and the UNWTO are separated by a gap of $142.71 billion

Accounting for the $142.71 billion gap in the two figrues from the CTA and UNWTO is challenging, but likely lies in different classifications of “tourist spending.” Still it illustrates how two data sets, even if both are technically accurate, can produce two very different perceptions of the state of the Chinese tourism industry.

Photo: UNWTO

However, the UNWTO’s numbers have another issue, without being technically “inaccurate.” The 5 percent increase the UNWTO cites is in terms of yuan (RMB) and not in terms of USD. On April 10th 2017, the USD to RMB conversion rate stood at 6.9. But on the same day in 2018, it stood at 6.28. This is something not made entirely clear by the promotional material released with the announcement. While it’s true that Chinese tourists spent more on tourism in 2017 in terms of RMB, the impact of this spending was effectively lower than last year because it translated into less dollars spent.

These major discrepancies and the misleading aspects of the statistics does not mean that stakeholders should ignore these numbers. Nor does it mean that Chinese tourism is on the decline in any meaningful way. However, one key takeaway is that these numbers should not be taken at face value. Ultimately, these figures massaged and framed in ways that put the state of Chinese outbound tourism in the best light possible. While ostensibly not false, they aren’t necessarily “true.”


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