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Young wanderlust: How millennials are changing China’s travel industry

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s over half of China travels for the extra-long National Day holiday, SupChina looks at how young Chinese are finding new ways to explore and escape.
2 weeks ago
Simone McCarthy
Young Chinese are increasingly seeking unique experiences abroad, and travel agencies are taking notice.

This week, over 700 million Chinese will be on the move, hitting the nation’s superhighways or boarding trains, planes, buses, and cruise ships to embark on National Day (国庆 guóqìng) vacations. Six million far-flung travelers will visit 100 different countries, while the vast majority, traveling within China, will generate 480 billion yuan ($72 billion) in revenue over this year’s extra-long eight-day break. The projections indicate more trips and more revenue than last year’s holiday — unsurprising, given that outbound travel spending has seen double-digit growth year after year since 2004.

As the supersized Chinese tourism industry grows, so, too, does the variety of trips that the country’s travelers will make. The days of chartered European bus tours offering hardcore shopping opportunities and Chinese-food banquets are waning. Many travelers now want unique cultural experiences and adventure: rain forest tours in China’s Yunnan, trips tracking animal migration through Africa, and excursions to bask under the glow of the aurora borealis. The North Pole is hot this year.

Millennial tastes

Some of these changes are natural as a young industry matures, and tourists look for new and upgraded experiences, experts say. But there is another force at work that is greatly impacting China’s travel industry — the millennial generation.

As the first group of Chinese to come of age with truly mainstream international travel, the middle- and upper-class children of the 1980s and 1990s are typically more globally minded. Their preferences are shaped by their distinctive socioeconomics: This group is more affluent and staying single longer than their predecessors. And they are digital natives.

“I prefer the kind of traveling that is free and unconstrained, which opens up my mind and allows me to experience different cultures and ways of life. That way, I feel free from the bounds of my limited knowledge and vision of the world,” says investment manager Tia Lu 陆余恬, 27, who is spending the holiday week traveling across the U.S. with a group of five friends — hitting everything from New York City’s Museum of Modern Art to Yosemite National Park in California. “People in my generation want an in-depth experience in the culture and way of life when we travel to a new place.”

In this spirit, some of China’s millennials are steering clear of organized tours, instead preferring to book their own travel, take solo trips, and seek out adventure and unique experiences. For them, travel is an escape, an expectation, and even a way to push back against the cultural pressures inherent in Chinese society.

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Traveling abroad is a way for young Chinese to escape the pressures of living in China.

“When we travel, we see more and more different kinds of lifestyles, what people in other countries and the young people there are doing, and we find inspiration for ourselves,” explains Hong Kong-based travel blogger Sheryl Xie 谢丹妮, 26. Exposure to different lifestyles and value sets is important for members of her generation, Xie says, as they struggle to create their own paths, distinct from the social and familial expectations of buying homes and settling into stable jobs. “Young people, they’ve got minds of their own — they can choose what they want to do.”

That’s a message that Xie shares with her roughly 3,000 followers on Weibo and WeChat. Though she works full time in the financial planning industry, Xie is also one of numerous young travel bloggers who are powering China’s independent travel industry. In her blog, Xie shapes her own travel tales around personal growth, writing about how travel has inspired her to think more broadly about happiness and personal values. “That’s one reason to travel, to discover other ways to live,” she says.

But though her travel to places like Cuba, Japan, and the U.S. has become a formative part of Xie’s life, these experiences are relatively new to her. In fact, for Xie, who grew up in the southwestern city of Chengdu, international travel wasn’t even something that had crossed her mind until her late teens, when the miniseries documentary To Berlin by Thumb (搭车去柏林 dāchē qù bólín) was aired. Before watching the journey of Gu Yue 谷岳 hitchhike westward from China, Xie had never even considered the possibility of international travel. It wouldn’t be until later in her university years, when she was an exchange student in Taiwan, that she first left mainland China.

The world is a new oyster

Her experience marks a critical feature within China’s current experience of travel: Though the country has been the world’s top source of international tourists for the past five years (spending $261 billion last year alone), world travel has only recently become accessible to most Chinese. The millennial generation has grown up alongside this opening up, which began in the early 1990s, when the Chinese government began to ease travel restrictions to more countries and the economy strengthened. And as millennials entered into their teens and early adulthood, the industry really began to boom. And now they are major contributors: This fall, over 50 percent of travelers are 23 to 34 years old, making them uniquely poised to shape this industry.

The rise of China’s travel industry alongside the coming of age of this generation also means that millennials tie their personal life satisfaction to their ability to travel, suggests Dr. Suosheng Wang, associate professor of tourism management at Indiana University, who recently published a study (paywall) relating to this topic. Part of this is external: Posting photos of exotic trips starts interesting conversations on social media and signals to others that you are happy, successful, and have had some valuable life experience, Wang found. But he also points to specific stresses on this demographic — for example, being single children responsible for aging parents, perhaps while becoming parents themselves — as added reasons why travel is important.

“They are a hardworking group, working in a very competitive environment to earn money and have a good promotion. It’s a dull, routine life,” he says. This relates to why they don’t just want to travel — they want to escape and “explore those exotic places where people haven’t traveled yet.”

Travel agencies are finding booming business in more adventurous travel plans.

As young people seek out these unique travel experiences, and share them on social media, these preferences trickle down into the mainstream. For Ivan Xiang 向仕强, who owns a travel agency in Chengdu, the impact has been very clear. As travelers’ tastes shift from sightseeing tours to more in-depth (and pricey) cultural experiences like rural homestays or adventure-based mountain-climbing trips, he’s seen a sevenfold increase in his profits over just two years. This is not only accounted for by young travelers — Xiang also sees this as a trend that is linked to their preferences.

“Because they have lived a better life, and they have seen more of the world, they will prefer something unique,” he explains. And while the trips he offers are currently limited to rural areas in Western China, like Sichuan and Xinjiang, Xiang says he’s planning to add a nature-focused trip based in Africa to keep up with customers’ evolving tastes.

Getting away from Chinese menus

The same impact is felt in the upper echelons of the market. Dirk Eschenbacher, a founding partner of the Beijing-based premium travel agency Zanadu, which provides customized vacations to destinations as far afield as California’s Coachella music festival, Northern Europe, Namibia, and Bhutan, states that finding the next new spot or a novel adventure is key across age groups for his clients. Once a place becomes popular in the mainstream among Chinese tourists — for example, by offering menus in Mandarin and Chinese barbecue on the streets — it’s time to move on. “That’s something that our audience doesn’t want to experience,” he says.

The quest to find these new experiences has led to a burgeoning world of travel blogging, where community members rely on one another for advice and inspiration. In addition to travel-focused blogs on China’s major social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat, major travel booking sites like Qunar, Ctrip, and Qyer have created space for a lively social media community, where hundreds of millions of users, included sponsored and amateur bloggers, make profiles to share their photos, travel stories, and recommendations.

These communities can lead to inspiration for new trips, or for new lives. Such is the case for Jeff Wang 王瑞斌, 34, of Beijing, who recently quit his office job of seven years to focus on things he loves. “I want to be a professional traveler — that’s my dream,” he says. Wang is spending his free time working on his own blog, based on his solo trips to Europe and Asia. Though he knows it’s a distant dream, he already feels excited by comments and questions that he’s gotten about his posts: “Actually, I feel like I have had an impact on others — it’s exciting to be a part of that.”

By Simone McCarthy
Simone McCarthy is a graduate of Columbia School of Journalism and a student of Chinese language and culture. 
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