Even back in February, when coronavirus was a hazy, unfamiliar word yet to be granted pandemic status, 2020 was being heralded as the year that would fundamentally rewire the world’s largest travel market.
First, domestic lockdowns curtailed China’s busiest travel period, Lunar New Year. Next, border closures prohibited Chinese tourists from traveling internationally, turning attention and billions in spending toward domestic destinations as restrictions loosened.
Remote destinations, including Tibet and Xinjiang, emerged as hot topics across social media. Digital trends, such as livestreaming, were catalyzed by an industry desperate to recuperate losses, while travel priorities were recalibrated. To make sense of 2020, Jing Travel spoke to a host of industry insiders for their key takeaways in a year unlike any other.
Enthusiasm For Travel Holds Strong
Despite the seismic disruptions posed by COVID-19, Chinese enthusiasm for travel remains. This might seem obvious, but at the outset of the epidemic in February, many tourism analysts speculated physical restrictions could translate to medium-term travel hesitancy. Though the priorities and modes of Chinese travel have changed, once inter-province restrictions were lifted, the volume of domestic travel grew incrementally with each passing national holiday. In Q1, tourism numbers stood at 16 percent of 2019 levels; by October’s National Day holiday, they hit 79 percent. Expect this trajectory to continue for 2021’s Lunar New Year.
Industry Insight: “Chinese continued to travel, as the impressive October Golden Week numbers show. Many trends of Chinese tourism accelerated during this time of closed borders. For 2021, China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI) forecasts 100 million border crossings from Mainland China.” — Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt, Founder of COTRI.
Livestreaming was enthusiastically embraced by most Chinese consumer-facing industries, but few reached the traffic and revenue success of the travel sector. Pioneered by the playful costumed performances of Ctrip’s CEO James Liang — generating $294 million across 25 livestreams — a wave of so-called “Boss Livestreams” swept the travel industry. Initially seen as an opportunistic stopgap measure suitable for lockdown audiences, such skepticism has since dissipated with over 20 percent of China’s travel trade trying the medium. Consumers are attracted to the experience of previewing travel products, the ability to communicate with stakeholders, and, of course, the chance to snap up bargain deals.
Industry Insight: “Livestreaming overall, not just in travel, boomed in 2020. Long-term, there will be continued expansion as consumers continue to explore emerging platforms such as Kuaishou and Bilibili. Each consists of different audiences, and destination marketing will continue to be part of the most popular platforms.” — Michael Lin, Business Director, Mailman X.
Hainan, The New Hot Spot
China’s major travel stakeholders began heavily promoting trips to the tropical island early on in the epidemic. Having drawn 6.5 million visitors in October, China’s southernmost province recovered better than most domestic destinations, though numbers remain 20 percent lower year-on-year. Media has offered loosened duty-free regulations as a driving factor, adding to the allure of its dazzling waters and warm climes.
While it’s true local authorities are using luxury shopping as part of a long-term strategy to broaden the island’s appeal, the resurgence can also be understood by the unavailability of previously popular low-cost international destinations such as Thailand and Vietnam. With Southeast Asian countries hustling to secure travel agreements with China, the true extent of Hainan’s popularity will likely become clearer in 2021.
Industry Insight: “Hainan is some distance from its plan to become a world-class beach destination by 2020. The pricing, quality of attractions, and level of service are still on the weaker side compared to nearby tropical islands such as Phuket or Bali. Hainan needs to provide a more well-rounded travel experience as duty free shopping cannot be the only leg of the table.” — Ashley Dudarenok, Founder of ChoZan and Alarice.
Innovations in Tourism Management
Smart tourism has emerged on both the consumer and stakeholder side of China’s tourism industry. Some measures, such as sanitation stations and QR health code checks, are temporary products of managing an epidemic. Others, such as pre-booking, unmanned services, and digital tour guides, will likely endure as long-term solutions. Aside from streamlining visitor experiences, such innovations can serve to regulate visitor flow and arm travel stakeholders with valuable consumer data.
Industry Insight: “The digitization of tourism management has been incredibly important to the recovery of domestic tourism in China. Though these systems have been introduced for epidemic management, long-term, these systems can prevent over-tourism and hold good marketing potential in terms of staying in touch with visitors.” — Sienna Parulis-Cook, Dragon Trail Interactive, Associate Director of Communications.