Are Chinese travellers the most important demographic in the world ?

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China is a country of superlative. Over 800 millions smartphone users, a near-cashless society, more university graduates than the total population of the USA, 700 million people lifted out of poverty in the past 10 years, One Belt One Road and the list goes on. China is fascinating outsiders because of its sheer scale, coupled with a perception of otherness and insularity. China is big and it is alien, and therefore it cannot be comprehended.

I arrived in Shanghai full of excitement, but also stereotypes which I was not even aware of. Some of these were swiftly demolished by day 2. I spent individual time with each members of my work team, to get to know them through their interests and hobbies. When 'Joan' told me she loved traveling, I was quick to think that this is China and the country of group travel in packs. So when I asked her to share her most memorable trip, I had vague expectations of a slightly more adventurous independent trip to Australia or Thailand. My jaw dropped when she mentioned that backpacking around Iran was her personal highlight. From that day on, I decided to forget every preconception i carried and to keep my ears and eyes open to understand my Chinese peers and what makes them tick. 

The Middle Kingdom is unfairly portrayed as a closed eco-system, centered on itself.  China did close off to foreigners in the late Qing dynasty era, partly in reaction to an imperialistic Europe that did not hesitate to steal trade secret (tea, ceramics) and ply local populace with opium to offset its trade balance.  However, I have written before about the  world-ranging curiosity of China's earlier dynasties, who welcomed foreign talents in engineering, astronomy and theology along the Silk Road (here). In more ways than one, the young Chinese of today embody the renaissance of that spirit of openness and curiosity, alongside China's reopening to the world.

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Much has been written about the lightning speed of cultural change in China, and Chinese millennials (most notably the post 1990s generation) grew up in a period of relative wealth, with the comfortable standard of living afforded by the 6-adults-to-1-child family structure. The accompanying parenting style has been obsessed with creating intellectual and cultural capital. Visit any large contemporary museum in China or abroad, and you will meet scores of Chinese families with young children -residents or tourist -on a cultural outing. Whilst this is certainly powered by a need for social and cultural distinction in a crowded and hyper-competitive society (Hello Bourdieux!), affluent families are both rediscovering 5,000 years of Chinese heritage and turning their gaze back onto the outside world. So it is perhaps unsurprising that status is less and less showcased through what money can buy, such as the luxury logo, and more and more displayed through experiences. Whilst it takes money to explore and travel, it takes primarily kudos, courage and creative thinking to discover new places to adorn your WeChat social media feed with.

I cannot say that I understand Mandarin well (although i am painstakingly slowly working on it), but after a few years living in Shanghai, my ears prick up when I hear the language. On regular trips to my home town of Paris, where wandering through the streets, rediscovering changing neighbourhoods and a spot of cool shopping feature heavily, I have started to notice that every trendy off-the-beaten path boutique or new coffee shop is now teeming with Chinese travellers.  A quick chat with my favourite shop assistants confirmed that the cool cats from Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Chengdu (and beyond) have replaced the Japanese tourists of yore.  These influencers leave behind a trail of hip & trendy crumbs that their followers seek out, showcasing their experiences to their peers and bringing back a few tasteful and unique souvenirs. Paris is probably not cool enough anymore. 2017 fastest-growing destinations include Scandinavia, thanks to the Hygge concept, as well as Marocco and Turkey.

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Chinese travellers are intrinsically curious and eager to try as many new experiences as possible. Shaun Rein’s excellent book The End of Copycat China dedicates a whole chapter to Chinese travellers and “(his company’s) research has found Chinese rarely visit the same property twice for vacation purposes and stay durations are shorter. Tourists often try five hotels in one week. They want to see as much of the world as possible because they were unable to travel abroad when younger because of money, passport, or visa restrictions.” An increasing part of their travel budget is being allocated to unique local experiences such as gourmet dining, vintage shopping or street food excursions, all great social media showcases of course, but also genuine opportunities to discover different cultures and shape their own individuality. Chinese travellers will even go frugal on parts of their stay (the famous instant noodle meal!) to fund these unique experiences.

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For Shaun Rein again, “No longer the domain of wealthy Chinese, scores of middle-class Chinese travel overseas. In 2013, 113 million traveled abroad, more than double the 50 million in 2010 and just a few thousand a year in the 1990s. By 2018, CMR estimates more than 200 million will travel abroad annually.” With exploding numbers of Chinese travellers, more and more destinations have finally relaxed visa rules and are becoming a lot more welcoming and culturally-sensitive to Chinese visitors.  With 1/5 tourism dollars now spent by Chinese travellers and exponential growth ahead with a mere 10% of the Chinese population currently owning a passport, "(...) it is important that foreign tourism marketers do not stereotype the Chinese market", said Alastair Morrison, former president of the International Tourism Studies Association and CEO of Belle Tourism International Consulting, based in Shanghai, in an interview with China Daily (quoted in this worthwhile article here). 

May these mutual interactions help build understanding an empathy. I currently live in Melbourne Australia and it is always such a joy to come across Chinese travellers in many local foodie hot spots, cultural venues and back country escapes.