Made all the more noticeable by their conspicuous flags and megaphones Chinese tour parties attract a special kind of fascination from a largely negative press. Whether they’re failing to queue or defacing ancient temples there’s no shortage of horror stories featuring the world’s largest international tourist cohort.
But for the most part the press is missing the bigger picture. International destinations both large and small are seeing a surge in interest from young professional Chinese travellers who have more in common with their Western millennial counterparts than with the middle-aged Chinese who populate the notorious flag-waving tour parties.
These new travellers are quick to take to social media to decry the behaviour of their less experienced kin. Most of these young travellers are highly educated and high earning and many have studied abroad and already travelled extensively. In doing so many have cultivated a taste for foreign cultures and are increasingly seeking out niche, culturally engaging experiences, the likes of which are not on offer from the average tour operator.
There are some lingering growing pains that create challenges for both providers and the travellers themselves. As Mei Zhang, CEO and founder of WildChina puts it “…the majority of [Chinese] tourists still need to develop. One problem area is advance planning. We have few clients who plan six months ahead. So they end up giving last minute requests for Michelin-starred dinners and they just can’t get in.”
Any company offering exclusive or limited-availability experiences will be familiar with that special kind of bafflement caused by a group of 30 Chinese customers looking to book a guided mountaineering expedition three days before arrival. Compounding such frustrations is a paucity of exposure from local activity providers and of tour providers to connect them with customers.
Yet the appetite is there and what was once a sub-section is growing rapaciously. According to the China Tourism Academy, under-45s now comprise over 90% of the market. As China continues to transform into a consumer economy and the middle class continues to grow the boom can be expected to continue. Chinese tourists will be seeking out ever further-flung destinations and activities. So forget about the tired newspaper tropes. The new Chinese tourist is looking for real cross-cultural experiences, not flags on long sticks.