Travelers lining up at Beijing Capital International Airport. Photo: testing / Shutterstock

According to a survey of 100,000 Chinese households conducted by CCTV, the National Bureau of Statistics, China Post Group, and the National School of Development at Peking University, travel ranks highest on Chinese consumers’ budgets for the new year. Among all respondents, a staggering 42.1 percent pegged travel as the top purchase for 2018, trailed by healthcare, electronics, and home appliances.

The annual China Economic Life Survey also collected data from a variety of Chinese online travel agencies (OTAs), such as Ctrip and Alibaba’s Fliggy, to further narrow down on travel trends. According to the survey’s results, Chinese tourists made 5 billion trips in 2017, with 129 million trips to destinations outside China—largely in line with the China National Tourism Administration’s (CNTA) figure of 130.5 million overseas trips.

Chinese tourists made 5 billion trips in 2017, with 129 million trips to destinations outside China

The survey pegged tourist spending in 2017 at 4.57 trillion yuan ($722.1 billion), out of which 748 billion yuan ($118.2 billion) was spent on trips to international destinations. In other words, and quite unsurprisingly, global Chinese travelers far outspent their domestic tourist counterparts on a per capita basis. The figures provided by the China Economic Life Survey puts average spending among outbound tourists at approximately $917 per trip, far ahead of the average $148 spent per domestic trip.

The average spending per international trip also puts into question how much of tourist spending is spent on tourism and tourism-related activities, and to what degree overseas spending actually represents capital outflows for investments in overseas real estate and for corruption-linked purposes—at least in certain destinations. In comparison, average spending among Chinese visitors in the United States stood at a staggering $9,200 in 2016—more than 10 times the average.

The accuracy of data on Chinese tourism spending is still very much in doubt

With Chinese outbound travel still to a large extent dominated by short-haul trips to places such as Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, South Korea, and Japan, it goes without saying that the average trip to the United States is more expensive than the overall average. However, if it’s realistic that the average trip to the United States is over 10 times more expensive than the average trip is perhaps more questionable.

In terms of travel trends, the survey findings underline that the Chinese tourism market is becoming more “rational” and “mature,” at least according to Zhang Lingyun, director of the Tourism Development Academy at Beijing Union University, who commented on the findings to state-owned Global Times. “There are fewer crazy shopping trips, with people buying various luxury products. People are more rational now. They focus more on enjoying the natural and cultural scenes,” Zhang told the Global Times.

Customized trips and family travel experienced significant growth in 2017

Other good news for tourism stakeholders that hope to tap into Chinese independent travel is that the survey found significant growth in customized trips (as opposed to group tours that strictly follow a travel agency’s itinerary) and family trips throughout 2017. The survey quotes 220 percent growth in customized travel, and 200 percent growth in family travel.

As Global Times puts it in its coverage of the survey findings, “The Chinese economy might be slowing and facing considerable challenges, but the country’s rising middle class appears to be unconcerned, with many spending heavily on travel both domestically and internationally.”

That can only mean good news for tourism businesses and destinations around the world.