Global internet tech development has become increasingly two-tiered over the years, and last week former Google Executive Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt became one of the highest profile tech figures to acknowledge it.
While speaking at an event hosted by the Village Global VC, Schmidt said he believed that the internet would be effectively split in two by 2028, with two separate Chinese and global internets. It’s a bold prediction, but it makes sense given the increased internet censorship in China under Xi Jinping’s tenure. For the vast majority of Chinese internet users, large swaths of the web are simply inaccessible, and this has huge implications for global tourism.
“I think the most likely scenario now is not a splintering, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America,” Schmidt stated. Unless a dramatic shift in China’s domestic politics happens in the next few years, the access of foreign companies to Chinese internet users, outside of Chinese platforms, will only decrease.
For the most part, destinations, hotels, museums, etc. can depend on a combination of word of mouth and the viral nature of social media to promote themselves. Content in any number of languages can be picked up, translated and disseminated organically to reach a large number of potential visitors. Moreover, the status of English as the de facto global language makes this relatively easy for destinations in the English-speaking world, which can bank on the popularity of English-language television, film and even news content.
In theory, this holds true for China as well. While the average English-language ability of Chinese consumers is much lower than that of European or Indian consumers, it’s improving rapidly thanks to a steady dedication to English classes in China over the past few decades. Chinese consumers, particularly younger consumers, are more capable than ever when it comes to consuming English-language content.
But it seems that the tourism industry will benefit little from this going forward. The majority of popular internet social media platforms are already blocked in China, including Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram and Snapchat. Moreover, Chinese authorities have already begun policing major international airlines‘ website content. The tourism sector should expect that even more international websites and platforms may be blocked or heavily monitored for content that Chinese authorities deem “offensive” or “politically incorrect,” thus forcing the sites to self-censor their content in an effort to remain open to customers in China.
What this means for Chinese tourism companies is hard to state definitively. Obviously, for international and local hotels, international airlines, and destinations, it’s more necessary than ever to have a presence on WeChat, Weibo and Chinese online travel agencies like Ctrip, Fliggy and Mafengwo. It’s not clear that international websites, even those curated specifically for a Chinese audience, will remain accessible or discoverable by Chinese audiences.
But more broadly, it’s also clear that industry leaders seeking to sell tourism products to a wide range of travelers from different source markets will also have to do some “splitting” of their own. The division of the internet into separate “international” and “Chinese” internets means that marketing globally for DMOs and companies will require a “splitting” of marketing strategies into effectively wholly separate marketing and outreach strategies. This will make marketing to a Chinese audience, something already challenging, even more resource intense. Unfortunately, it’s something many stakeholders won’t be able to avoid.