The Chinese Conundrum – Travel to China & How the Rise of China has affected the World of Travel

Yes folks, today I’m going to look at the impact of China’s rising economy and it’s opening up to tourism on the world of travel. And this means more than just the influx of Chinese tourists on the scene. It has changed the way we travel to some degree, it’s opened up a very large and fascinating country to mass tourism in itself, it’s brought Chinese Airlines to prominence globally, it has changed the way the rest of the world views China, and finally and in 2020 most significantly it has resulted in a backlash – some real, some perceived – against the world’s most populous country. What is the full effect on China on the rest of the world, in particular in regards to tourism? Today, I want to riff and explore these questions with you, I encourage you to keep an open mind, and I encourage you as always to comment below –  keeping in mind that it’s always best to keep things civil!

Package, Groups and Family Tourism

So I wondered before writing this piece, if it was just me or do Chinese tourists prefer to visit other places as part of package tourism? It turns out… yes they do and that that trend is growing. I should take a sidebar to mention here that much of this bit refers to the pre-Covid world. I doubt whether it’s been growing in 2020. I’ve gather some facts from a research project from September 2018 by McKinsey & Company – Chinese Tourists – Dispelling the Myths.

Also, travellers from China do prefer in any case to travel in groups, or as families. Which I think is different on the whole from Western tourists. Not that we don’t travel in groups, but family holidays, whilst they do happen, are more about parents and younger children. Whereas from China you are more likely to see multiple generations, aunts, uncles and cousins including in touring parties. So immediately we are talking larger numbers of people heading off together.


I wondered if tastes and preferences would therefore be different. According to the report mentioned, not so much. Chinese tourists do like high-end hotels and restaurants and like to know they are having good quality. And so perhaps in general they are less adventurous and won’t be found sampling street food in India for example.

Going on my personal interactions and experiences, I haven’t met a lot of Chinese tourists staying in budget digs or hostels for example. I haven’t seen a LOT of Chinese tourists trying to travel independently and work things like visas and the like out for themselves. And I can understand the advantage of having that all taken care for you. Which means there are companies out there that have to specialise in doing all the aspects of the travel.

Package, Groups and Family Tourism

Well really, to be honest not a lot. Other than there are more and more people at sights we might visit. Regardless of where anyone is from, which shouldn’t be an issue any way, I dislike large groups of people. When you’re in a tour group of some sort, and I imagine this is more so for those in a group for a longer period of time than say versus a day tour, you get funnel vision, and you notice less the people around you, the other tourists. I have had many experiences where people from tour groups barge in front of you like you’re not there to organise their selfie for example. Or I’ve been ambling along in a museum going my own pace when a fast moving group has basically overtaken me and I felt like I’m drowning in people. Again – this happens from the nature of tour groups regardless of the origin of the people from the group.

And I’ve been part of tour groups too and so I know how you form friendships and start to natter and chat with your new friends and you are less aware of your surroundings.

The more tour groups there are, the more they become prioritised. And that can make it tougher for the independent traveller when you arrive somewhere and they tell you to wait because a group of 40 is coming and they have to be processed first and together. Sometimes it works in the opposite way too of course. You’re behind a group and because you’re only one or two, they will let you through (to buy a ticket for example) first because it will be far quicker.

San Cristobel Island, Galapagos.

Large groups fill places up much quicker too, such as restaurants. When in Galapagos we would eat as a group of twenty plus, that would take up a good slice of the restaurant. It’s good for business I guess, but we also were loud and perhaps people missed out on a table because of the size of the group.

Then we have the influence in general of the mass numbers that come out of China to see the world today, as opposed to a much smaller number not so long ago. The interweb tells me that in 1995, 25 years ago, China’s outbound tourism numbers were around 5 million annually. By 2016, actually only 21 years later, that number had ballooned out to 135 million. I’m not sure it’s even humanly possible to calculate that rate of increase. Yes it is, it’s 2700% of the 1995 number! That’s a huge change and one that must be felt globally.

The number of foreign tourists heading to China has also changed, so the way and places that we travel too now includes this large and populous country far more in its reckoning. In fact, it was 419 million visitors in 2019 – so over three times the outbound number. Now this includes all numbers, and many Chinese people now call abroad home, especially throughout Asia and so on, and Chinese New Year sees a huge amount visiting the ‘Motherland’, which should be kept in mind. Anyways you see it, the 1985 number, when China began to first open up to tourism properly, the number was 1.4 million. I won’t calculate the rate of increase.

Stats don’t lie. Well, they can be misleading, but in this case it is very clear – the introduction of China into world tourism over the last 35 years has hugely impacted the numbers. But now I want to turn your attention to the present, not just 2020 but really the last four years because this is where there have been some changes and different approaches towards China.

It all Changed…

Great Wall of China from 1986

In the late 1980s, China, although the country with the most people in the world, was not one greatly considered by travellers in general. And people from China likewise didn’t take off and see the world.

In the 1990s, China’s policies changed towards the rest of the world. In fact, they opened up enough that their bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games was ultimately successful. They were on show for the world!

Suddenly it seemed, as if almost without warning, economic growth exploded across China. China now invests like no other country across the globe from America, to Africa, even to here in Australia. The economy expanded faster than any other in the time period since the late 20th Century.

On the road Tajikistan

China’s influence is positive in many respects. Tajikistan and many other countries have decent roads for example. Australia’s economy since the 1990s has moved and grown thanks almost exclusively to the fact that China has been building as fast as they possibly could, and needed to buy iron ore, and, for a little rhyme, more!

Tourism as a Positive…

But many take a more negative view towards China, and with the events of this year, it will most likely have a negative effect on the tourism numbers coming out of China. And more particularly going in. Although there the domestic market I believe is huge which may compensate in some way. I’m not going to take a political view here, I’ve deleted those paragraphs. Actually it was like a page. But I will say – Tourism supports more than just governments. It supports people. People who have jobs working in hotels, airports, restaurants, tour agencies and more.

Li River – near Guilin

There’s extreme beauty in the south, where I visited Guilin and the Li River, seeing amazing mountains all around me. The incredible artisan work that is the Army of the Terracotta Warriors, not far from the brilliant walled city of Xi’an. The bustle and strange buildings, the suburbs and the variation in Shanghai, and of course the behemoth that is Beijing with all it’s history, and that gosh darned wall!

China does have a lot to offer the visitor, and it provides a lot of income for the rest of the world in many ways, in particular outbound tourism. Where do we want it to fit? And where will it eventually settle? I don’t know. The next decade is going to be very interesting to watch in terms of travel and tourism. One thing is for sure – China’s emergence has certainly put a lot of money into the travel industry, world-wide. Which has changed tourism without a doubt. Tourism depends almost as much on the people who visit than what is there to see and do. Those who visit shape what the companies offer and how they offer it. And there has been no bigger player in that over the last 30 years.

Thanks for reading today. May the Journey Never End!

12 thoughts on “The Chinese Conundrum – Travel to China & How the Rise of China has affected the World of Travel

  1. Thank you for your commentary on China and tourism. Being a first-generation Chinese-American, I can’t exactly represent the Chinese on their tastes in travel, but I can offer some extra insight from growing up and observing them: for one, the reason why the Chinese prefer group tour packages/going in big groups is that, yes, family is important and that everyone should all stay together– even bringing friends and coworkers! But the main reasons why they do so is: 1) good deals as in they can see many cities in a short period of time (especially because they’re coming all the way from China and actually, only 14% of the population own a passport…so the tourists you see are from the rich/upper-middle class) and 2) many of them don’t really speak English (or well enough) to travel on their own, so they pay for tours for comfort and a piece of mind. Another theory I have (and this is for the younger generation) is that the Chinese only see the main highlights in each city they visit, and it’s nothing more than taking/posing for a million photos of the Eiffel Tower to post on social media and brag to people back home, as well as buy a ton of high-end souvenirs (e.g. Louis Vuitton bags) not just to show off, but also sell at a high mark-up when they return to China. Although it irks me whenever I see Chinese tourists in the places I travel to (because they block the roads and some are rude), it’s good that their country’s developing to have more people travel for pleasure; things are changing for China, and I think the people deserve a chance to go out and fun themselves, just like others in the world.

  2. Oh Andy, I’m short of words and I always enjoy when you bring in discussions like this for everyone to think about. Let’s be honest, they’ll be a chunk of irrational tourists who may hold a grudge against China because of the pandemic and because of one thing or the other, may never return to the country. Heck! I already started seeing people doing the blame game and some hate reviews at the beginning of the year.

    The beauty of tourism is they’ll always be visitors no matter what. China has done well to preserve her best artefacts and people will still want to walk the great walls.

    I adore this reasoning and I had no idea for a fact that they promoted tourism packages outfit to the rest of the world.

    Keep up the good work Sir!

  3. Pingback: From the Diary – The Trans-Mongolian Express – Beijing to Ulaan Baatar – Andy's World Journeys

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