Chinese outbound tourism to grow by leaps and bounds

Published on : Saturday, November 23, 2013

Reminiscent of the initial days of Deng Xiaopeng when China began its economic reforms the third plenum of the ruling party in China announced a series of dramatic changes. The “Third Plenum of the Communist Party of China’s 18th Central Committee” that was held between 9th and 12th November came up with a number of reforms and policy changes, but affluent Chinese can at least heave a sigh of relief for the moment. None of the policies seem to have the intention of curbing the capacity to build upon the already startling amounts of wealth that this powerful stratum of society has managed to acquire. The planned creation of further Free Trade Zones and private banks and the easing of restrictions for outbound foreign direct investment will, on the contrary, help to develop the international engagement of Chinese companies and investors.
The spending per person on international tourism in China in 2012 amounted to just 75 US$, a tiny sum compared to 266 US$ for the USA and more than 1,000 US$ for Germany, Canada or Australia. Still China is topping the UNWTO tables with US$ 102 billion in total spending, reflecting the fact that only the top ten percent of  Chinese society are able to afford trips beyond the borders of Mainland China.

Recently published data for 2013 from the China Tourism Academy, the think tank of the China National Tourism Administration, put the number of outbound trips for the first three quarters of 2013 at 72.5 million, demonstrating a Year-on-Year increase of 18%. In other words, more outbound border-crossings occurred from China in the first nine months of this year than in the whole  of 2011.

The new Chinese government is not only facilitating this accumulation of wealth, but despite the ongoing campaign against conspicuous consumption, the outbound leisure tourism industry actually received public support on several occasions this year. In January the Chairman of the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA), Shao Qiwei, announced that “Outbound tourism will boost China’s development in the long-term. The government, and particularly CNTA, will continue to promote the travelling of Chinese people abroad as we believe in the mutual benefits of collaboration.”

In April President Xi Jinping himself during the 2013 Annual Conference of the Boao Forum for Asia on Hainan Island said in his keynote speech that in the next five years China will probably have over 400 million tourists travelling abroad.

This was the first time ever a Chinese communist party leader spoke internationally in a positive and comprehensive way about outbound tourism. Since then, on several further occasions Xi mentioned outbound travel, for instance during Xi’s visit to Samarkand/Uzbekistan in September, where he alluded to the shared history of travelling on the Silk Road. Outbound tourism, especially to neighboring and to less developed countries, has been increasingly used as a soft power tool even in the face of a tourism trade deficit which will for 2013 certainly reach a level of at least US$70 billion.

In summary, how fast the announced reforms in China become reality remains to be seen. For outbound tourism no limitations on the lifestyles of affluent Chinese are on the horizon. In fact international travel experiences remain, alongside a nice house, a big car, luxury brand apparel and a child with an international university degree, as one of the necessary components of representing oneself as a successful Chinese. With the Chinese government putting no restrictions on international travel but instead supporting it, and visa regulations around the world starting to be eased especially for Chinese frequent travellers means only unfortunate events in China could stop the citizens of the Middle Kingdom in their ongoing quest to see the world.

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