In recent years, common wisdom has sought to redefine the modern Chinese traveler. The prevailing message is that tour groups — complete with requisite matching baseball caps and megaphone touting guides — have been replaced by Free Independent Travelers (FITs). As far as Europe is concerned, however, Ctrip’s most recent data begs to differ.
According to Ctrip, China’s leading travel service company, 70 percent of its bookings to Europe across the first half of 2019 were for tour groups. For European museums and cultural institutions, the statistic should prompt a reassessment of how to best connect with the world’s largest, and most lucrative, outbound travel market. In essence, fostering relationships with more traditional tour operators, both domestic and Chinese, remains vital for growing Chinese visitation.
Although the figure is high, it should be not entirely surprising. For starters, the majority of outbound Chinese travelers are still first time or relatively inexperienced travelers, a factor which is especially true for long-haul destinations. In 2015, a mere 4 percent of Chinese held passports, the number today is closer to 9 percent and for these 500-odd million new outbound travelers, organized tours provide comforting levels of convenience and security at an attractive price point.
The nature of the Chinese tour group abroad is also changing. The once ubiquitous image of the frenzied, low-quality, and cheap, tour group is waning. In its place are more curated trips that skip forced shopping excursions and inauthentic dining options in favor of culturally focused experiences. Further evidence of the growing trend for customization is the increase in the private tours (three to four people) across Europe, which according to Ctrip grew by 120 percent between 2018 and 2019. This growing demand for cultural expertise and insight when traveling should set European cultural attractions scheming on how best to capitalize and make Chinese travelers aware of onsite tours through travel agencies and relevant social media channels.
The importance of tour group travel is furthered by the recent growth of Chinese tourist numbers to Europe. Driven by favorable visa policies and currency rates (in stark contrast to the deteriorating U.S. situation), Chinese tourists to Europe grew by 7.4 percent in the first half of 2019. The sight of tour buses in museum parking lots is one that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Words by Richard Whiddington