Incremental change: hints of China’s travel future

The Chinese Travel Evolution

As the world witnessed an influx of Chinese travelers in the past 20 years, many of the trips accounted for were quick and easy, itinerary set, group tours – which prioritized shopping and iconic sight seeing (often in that order) first.  Undoubtedly numerous countries benefited from this tourism hike (namely Korea, European shopping meccas, and the US)– but not all were fans of this rush. As Chinese tourists started discovering the world after decades of market and economic closure – tourism began to slowly unravel and picked up momentum in the late 90’s. During this time, tourism in China was still at its infant stage – interpersonal conversations, out of group or self led tours, and cultural sensitivity was minimal. But as many white-collar tourists are going on nth trip out of China, cultural clues have been absorbed, curiosities have widened beyond tourist sites, and consumers are craving for more than a Louis Vuitton bag to take home.

Visa’s new ‘‘爱上自游’ campaign encourages travelers to explore without pretense and wander freely


Businesses recognizing this small, yet influential step towards travel have shifted their communication efforts to support their consumer’s desire for a more experiential travel. Credit card companies, for example, in lieu of capitalizing on the products or the ‘money’ aspect of travel are encouraging travelers to dive into the exploration and immersion side of travel.

In a new Visa campaign, which borrows from past Visa experiential travel tropes (e.g. ‘It’s everywhere you want to be’ in the 80’s and the not too distant past of ‘go Travel Happy’) – a storyline emerges around two businessmen who are asked for partake in a 48-hour ‘Visa Card’ challenge. They are asked to travel Chiang Mai Thailand with no cash, no help, and only a Visa card.  While the scenes can be dizzying (literally the first 10 seconds I felt nauseous from camera movement) with narrative that seem to be inspired by the 2013 Chinese hit comedy film ‘Lost in Chiang Mai’– the scenarios and trouble they find themselves in speak tremendously about the path Chinese travel is on.  Visa challenges viewers to travel independently and freely, as the last phrase viewers see is #爱上自’ – literally to fall in love with independent travel, with a homophonic play on words between the words independent and travel (independent in Chinese is自由 ‘zì yóu’, the play on words comes when the second character ‘yóu’ is replaced with the character ‘’ | yóu, which has the same pronunciation but meaning travel). In all, this commercial strikes several different chords than most ads out there in China today. It’s spunky, it’s lively, and it’s not all about the glitz and glamour of luxurious traveling. It’s sparking the imagination of future travelers and more or less telling them it’s ok to 迷路 (‘mílù’ or ‘be lost’) – without the help of a tour guide. 

UnionPay (Visa’s strongest contender in China) on the other hand, tactfully eliminated all foreign currency exchange fees with their business cardholders – but they’ve yet to communicate this outside of their website. And as for personal UnionPay cardholders, there’s been a silence in travel communication – or communication in general (their last updated commercial spot since 2012). While American Express, has kept true to its more exclusive, premium discourse by collaborating with selected partners worldwide. Thus, much of their communication is targeted towards a specific audience, in a specific medium, and not as publically well known as the Visa commercials.

Where travel is heading in China

It’s not Visa’s sudden leap of faith that has driven their newest campaign. Chinese travelers, especially with the post-80’s generation and younger (or in Western terms Gen X&Y), are taking much more trips outside the country, and often sans tour group. So what are some of the trends that can be seen from these second generation travelers?


Travel list-and-rent sites such as AirBnB and Chinese-born Xiaozhu gain traction with modern travelers


  • Taking away comfort zones & traditional luxuries: As Chinese white-collar got richer, so did their expectations, and material possessions. So when it came time to explore Western countries or more exotic locations, comfort and pamper naturally came with. But while this is a ‘nice to have’ it doesn’t set precedent on their entire trip. Amenities of a 5-star hotel and high-noon tea have turned into AirBnB stays, which often times feels more authentic, being part of the cultural experience, and needless to say cheaper. AirBnB, is now collaborating with AliPay making it much easier for Chinese travelers to book under their site.  Because of the popularity and ease of use of AirBnB, new doors have opened up for AirBnB like sites in China – such as Xiaozhu and Tujia, where users can post listings of properties that can be rented out. Both Xiaozhu and Tujia also received large amounts of funding from investors earlier this year ($15M and $100M respectively) 1,2.
  • Observance and practice of cultural traditions and sensitivities: In the past (and perhaps with less experience travelers now) it was not uncommon to see Chinese tourists ‘stop, snap a pic, and go’ without a richer understanding of what they’re seeing. When the more sites and trips you took equated to wealth and prestige – then quantity, naturally, is what was chased after.   However, as the nouveau riche started reaching deeper than their pockets could offer, sheer quantity started becoming less impressive. For modern travelers, cultural learning is a chance to have fun and become hands on. It is also a social badge to take home in hopes to showcase one’s social development and personal growth, one that cannot be earned from economic prosperity.


Cultural immersion and practice seen in the new Visa ‘爱上自游’ campaign


  • Adventures of a different kind: With so many middle and upper class Chinese travelers no longer needing sightseeing tour operations, new adventure based activities have been sprouting up in hopes to capture their attention. Trophy hunting, for example, has grown tenfold in the past five years – with trips spanning from Tanzania, Mexico, and New Zealand3. While scuba diving remains one of the top sports for Chinese while traveling, with enthusiasts planning trips around their next dive. As a case study, one of my own friends, a Beijing native, has recently taken a trip to Thailand, not for the beaches, but for deep-sea fishing.

Staying Power of Individual Travel

For the modern traveler, interactive and immersive experiences have created a demand for travel-related content. ‘BreadTrip (面包游行)’ a China-born travel tool, merged the need of reviews and social interaction together. Travelers can record their trips and share with their friends their travelogue while reviewing and recommending destinations and accommodations. But more importantly, it’s allowing members to build a network of (mostly) modern travelers to share their adventures and tips – leaving inspiration for future trekkers.  With over 1 million registered users within the first two years, the number is only increasing as Breadtrip is currently on its 4th version with top ratings from Apple’s app store. But as sites such as BreadTrip become more popular, will its social database become more diluted with the ‘not so modern’ travelers who go on trips for the sake of social badging to make sure their face and voice is heard? If past trends give hint to the future of ‘trial and review’ these sites are surely going to be ‘overused’ leaving travelers unsure whose opinions are valuable. So where will these ‘true’ modern travelers turn to? – Organically formed groups? Websites/apps which lets you be your own travel guide (e.g. Tripomatic)?

Finally, a sobering number for thought; as 2014 is wrapping up – Chinese tourists are expected to spend approximately 155 billion USD over the course of this year traveling abroad (according to the China Tourism Academy) – a 20% jump from 20134.  As modern travel rises alongside these figures– all eyes are on the next unique, extreme, and/or catered travel experiences for China’s next generation of world explorers.


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Original publication for Flamingo Lens, written by Cheryl Hung

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