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Outbound Chinese Travel Accelerates Towards Pre-pandemic Levels

New data from ForwardKeys and Dragon Trail International illustrates the ongoing recovery of Chinese outbound travel, with flight bookings gradually catching up to pre-pandemic levels, while consumer confidence and intention to travel outbound also increased.

Recent research by travel intelligence specialists ForwardKeys revealed that outbound Chinese travel is gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels. In the first quarter of 2024, the number of issued flight tickets have shown a steady increase, currently reaching just 32% under Q1 2019 levels. As of April 3, bookings for the upcoming May holiday are only 13% down when compared to the same period in 2019.

The recovery of China’s outbound travel market is also highlighted in the latest Chinese consumer sentiment research by Dragon Trail International, which reveals that Chinese travelers are now ready to see the world with a renewed sense of adventure. From 6-19 March 2024, Dragon Trail surveyed 1,015 mainland travelers about their travel plans, outbound destinations, travel spending, and response to tourism marketing.

Intention to travel outbound has grown, with increased attention on long-haul destinations

In total, 63% of Dragon Trail’s survey respondents have already traveled outbound in 2024 or are planning to do so. This is significantly higher than last year at the same time, when only 41% had outbound travel intentions. Only 10% of survey respondents said they would definitely not pursue outbound travel opportunities this year – compared to 31% in April 2023.

Chinese travelers are also more likely to be planning intercontinental trips, with 39.7% of respondents saying they plan to or want to visit a region outside Asia in 2024. 26.7% plan to travel to Europe, the leading long-haul region. South Korea was the most popular country for 2024 outbound travel plans, followed by traditional hotspots Thailand and Japan, and newly visa-free Singapore. For long-haul destinations, France tops the list, followed by Iceland. Emerging as an unexpected favorite in Dragon Trail’s August 2023 survey, Iceland remains in the top 10 most coveted outbound destinations, thanks to depictions of its natural phenomena such as aurora borealis and volcanos on Chinese social media and reality TV.

“Multimedia content has made the deepest impression on Chinese travelers, with video and live steaming emerging as the most eye-catching formats. Popular reality shows also succeed in familiarizing Chinese audiences’ overseas destinations, as we can see specifically in the case of Iceland featuring in the TV show Divas Hit the Road,” shares Janice Meng, Dragon Trail’s Market Research Analyst.

Laid-back visa requirements draw in Chinese travelers

Relaxed visa requirements play a significant role in attracting Chinese tourists. Examining the destinations that have simplified visa requirements for Chinese travelers since 2023, reveals a 115% increase in travel from China to Kazakhstan, 18% growth to Singapore, and a near-complete recovery of travel to Russia and Malaysia in the first quarter of 2024.

“However, there’s more to it,” points out Nancy Dai, China Market Analyst at ForwardKeys “Kazakhstan’s standout performance is driven by a 23% increase in seat capacity and the provision of affordable travel packages, allowing Chinese travelers to enjoy winter activities in a neighboring country. This is particularly relevant as winter destinations are becoming increasingly popular.”

“Thailand’s performance has been below the average for Chinese outbound travel, likely due to the negative impact of a shooting incident in October last year. This suggests that while visa waivers are a major draw for Chinese travelers, other factors like safety concerns and flight connectivity also play a crucial role when they are choosing a holiday destination,” she adds. Thailand ranks 17th out of 20 outbound destinations for safety, according to Dragon Trail’s survey, with 38% of Chinese travelers perceiving it as “unsafe” to travel to.

For Chinese tourists, the world seems to be getting safer

More than one year after China’s reopening, fears about the safety of the outside world are fading. Respondents’ perception of safety improved for 10 out of 12 destinations (including Thailand), and travelers expressed a strong desire to experience overseas travel now that the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. Hong Kong was voted the safest outbound destination, followed by Singapore, Switzerland, and Australia.

“It’s very promising to see that in the eyes of Chinese travelers, the world seems to be getting safer. Safety perceptions have improved for destinations around the world, and fears surrounding COVID-19 have dissipated, allowing Chinese travelers to once again seek out new landscapes, different cultures, and exotic cuisines,” comments Sienna Parulis-Cook, Dragon Trail’s Director of Marketing and Communications.

In a joint webinar on Wednesday, 24 April (9am UK, 4pm China), Dragon Trail will reveal the full results of their Chinese traveler sentiment survey, while ForwardKeys will share insights into emerging patterns in Chinese outbound travel using flight ticket data and discussing the outlook for the upcoming May holiday. Registration is free, and webinar attendees will receive a copy of the complete report following the presentation.



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