At the recent ASEAN Tourism Forum 2024 in Vientiane, Laos, Gary Bowerman, the director of Check-in Asia and Asia travel analyst for Phocuswright (which shares parent company Northstar Travel Group with Travel Weekly Asia) shed light on the challenges faced by the Chinese tourism market in Southeast Asia following the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bowerman, a leading expert on Chinese tourism market, emphasised that China, once the primary source market for Southeast Asia, is experiencing a gradual recovery despite the resumption of travel.
Before the pandemic, China was the top source market for Southeast Asia, with 32.3 million Chinese arrivals in ASEAN, 11 million of which were in Thailand alone. However, the recovery has been slower than anticipated. Bowerman attributes this to high expectations in outbound travel that were not met, stating, “Outbound didn’t meet expectations, probably because expectations were too high.”
Expectations exceed reality
In 2023, despite Chinese tourists having more freedom to travel, the overall arrivals for the entire ASEAN region were merely 11 million, equivalent to Thailand’s numbers in 2019. Bowerman predicts that these figures will increase over time, but factors influencing recovery are beyond the control of the tourism and hospitality industry.
The ease of visa-free travel for Chinese travellers is one key factor. The Chinese passport, currently ranked 62nd globally in passport power, allows access to only 85 countries without a visa. Bowerman anticipates improvement through reciprocal agreements with countries like Thailand and Singapore, set to take effect in the coming weeks.
Airline capacity is of course another factor, with international capacity just 10% of pre-pandemic levels in January 2023 when China reopened its borders. In a best-case scenario, official predictions say that the level will still only reach 80% of 2019 numbers by the end of 2024.
The Chinese economy’s slowdown has also resulted in less disposable income for overseas trips, further affecting the recovery of the Chinese tourism market in Southeast Asia.
Get a handle on Chinese lifestyle
However, Bowerman stressed that one of the most significant challenges stems from China itself. Chinese travellers are technologically savvy, relying on e-commerce, social commerce, and e-payment solutions. Integrated superapps, live-streaming, key opinion leaders (KOLs), and influential social media platforms like Ctrip/Trip, Figgy, Meituan, WeChat, and Alipay are integral to their travel experiences.
Bowerman advised operators in Southeast Asia to understand that ”there is no such thing as the Chinese traveller”. They are diverse according to region, to economic background as well as by demographics and interests. “We generalise a lot about groups and FITs,” he says, “but we are not doing ourselves any favours by treating [them] homogeneously.”
Bowerman went on to explain that perceptions of travel were much more related to lifestyle than to a separate category. Drawing on examples from food and nightlife to live music, plus a taste for domestic destinations that grew astronomically during the pandemic period, he demonstrated how many travellers were choosing to stay within China. Destinations like Changsha offer 24-hour attractions and Sanya in Hainan offers two of the biggest duty-free shopping facilities in the world, loaded with made-for China products.
He urged destinations to leverage their strengths, emphasising unique attractions such as nature in Laos and Cambodia. Bowerman encouraged a shift in perspective, suggesting, “Get a handle on Chinese social media. Rethink tourism as lifestyle.”