Despite the obvious geographical advantage, things aren’t always easy in Chinese tourism for short-haul destinations in China’s periphery. Hong Kong is wrestling with Chinese overtourism, Thailand is battling zero-dollar tours, South Korea is hampered by a travel ban, and Taiwan is faced with artificial limits on Chinese travel imposed by Beijing. However, these countries don’t only serve as warnings for other nations as their number of Chinese visitors grow, but also lead the way in how to deal with challenges posed by tourism in general and Chinese tourism in particular.
For a long time, the obvious solution to any and all problems related to Chinese tourism in China’s periphery has been to double down on Chinese independent travel. As the logic goes, independent travelers are less sensitive to limits imposed by Beijing, are more experienced travelers, and aren’t contributing as much to overtourism as their group peers. Perhaps most importantly, they often tend to be the more profitable group of travelers.
Attractive and “obvious” solution as it might be, destinations have been cautious in actively venturing down this path—whether for fear of losing out on the main staple, group tours, or alienating tourism stakeholders with vested interests in group travel from China. Why change a winning recipe?
Limits on group travel have forced destinations like South Korea and Taiwan to go independent
Instead, a shifting focus to group travelers has many times come from unfortunate external factors. In the case of South Korea, Beijing’s travel ban on group tours to South Korea. In the case of Taiwan, Beijing-ordered limits on group travel after the election of an independence-leaning government. In Thailand, pervasive practices by Chinese tour operators encouraged the industry to look to more profitable independent travel and higher-revenue tours.
In Taiwan, the situation looks particularly hopeless in terms of Chinese group travel for obvious geopolitical reasons and Beijing’s skepticism against President Tsai Ing-wen. While met with frustration by stakeholders that have benefited immensely from Chinese tour groups, the Taiwanese government instead put substantial resources behind diversifying source markets—particularly in Southeast Asia as part of its New Southbound Policy. In China, the obvious focus was independent travelers.
Taiwan’s focus on diversifying source markets and doubling down on Chinese independent travelers has proven highly successful
By the looks of things, this strategy has proven very successful in reducing Taiwan’s reliance on Chinese group travelers for the industry’s bottom line. According to a report by the Ministry of Transportation and Communications cited in the Taipei Times, 80.86 percent of all foreign visitors were independent travelers. Among Chinese travelers, this figure stands at 66.21 percent, up from 52.21 percent the year prior—and a striking change from a previously tour-dominated source market in China. And the trend is showing no signs of slowing down.
Repeat visitors are more likely to travel independently and to get off the beaten track
But the good news doesn’t end there. According to the report, Chinese visitors were more inclined to travel independently on repeat visits, further fueling the growth of Chinese independent travel. Even better, repeat visitors were found more likely to venture beyond the most popular sights in Taipei to scenic areas in central and southern Taiwan—reducing the risk for exacerbated overtourism in Taipei as overall visitor numbers continue to grow.
For other destinations in China’s periphery, Taiwan’s successfully reduced reliance on Chinese group travelers and encouraging development of independent travel provides many important lessons on how to make the most out of a complex Chinese tourism market. And unlike Taiwan, most of China’s neighbors won’t be up against the same level of animosity and imposed restrictions on travel.
Arguably, a shifted focus to independent travelers is in many places already overdue. Independent travel in China as a whole is growing, and destinations that continue to focus most efforts and resources on group travel risk being left behind as the Chinese market goes independent.