China travel trends: Go near, go outdoors, go healthy
Updated 13:01, 02-Jul-2020
By Cheng Lei

Summer vacations are just around the corner, but given COVID-19, Chinese travelers are swapping overseas holidays for trips closer to home and closer to nature. China's travel industry is also refocusing inwards.

Waldorf Astoria Beijing's downtown glamping – a luxurious tent set on a terrace overlooking 300-hundred-year-old hutong, is a sign of an industry adapting to traveler's new wish-list – go near, go outdoors, go healthy.

Over coffee in the tent, we chatted with Linda Wang, the managing director of Destination Asia (China). She's redirecting her business, which used to specialize in high-end inbound travel, crafting experiences for celebrities like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg.

"We're now developing products around mountain hiking, trekking, the areas we've picked are Guizhou, Yunnan, Qinghai, Xinjiang," Wang said.

She just came back from a site inspection in northwest China's Qinghai and was excited by prospects of glamping resorts there, which had spectacular scenery like canyons, salt lakes, and desert, but no infrastructure and only bare-bones service.

Across town on the outskirts of Beijing, we visited James Li, who was rushed off his feet, fulfilling orders at his outdoor gear shop crammed with imported brands like PetroMax and Snow Peak. Sales have jumped tenfold since the pandemic.

The way he puts it, his main clientele, thirty somethings, might have saved 30,000 yuan to go to Japan, now the money is used for self-drive outdoor travel in China.

James predicted continued growth in China's market around camping because people lead busy lives and want to de-stress in the great outdoors.

That sentiment is echoed by Chen Hanbin, one of China's key influencers in outdoor travel, having circled the globe in an RV for over four years.  

"People will travel in a more nature-based way, like camping. I used to travel in recreational vehicles (RVs), and people I know who were totally uninterested in such travel are now asking me, where can I rent an RV, do you know how I can get a discount on buying an RV, are they convenient in China. Many people are leaning towards camping or RV travel, especially those with kids," Chen shared with CGTN.

While searches for "camping" have more than doubled in recent months, according to travel platforms, clearer rules are needed, according to Chen. 

In RED, also known as Xiaohongshu, searches for "camping" during the Dragon Boat Festival holiday increased 298 percent compared to last year. /CGTN

In RED, also known as Xiaohongshu, searches for "camping" during the Dragon Boat Festival holiday increased 298 percent compared to last year. /CGTN

He compared his experiences in Australia and New Zealand, where government websites contained exact information about camping grounds, with anecdotes in China of campers being chased away by local village officials.

If guidelines are set to ensure safety and protection of the land, and if map apps can point out the permitted areas, camping would really take off.

Wang pointed out there must be consistent and coordinated post-COVID health requirements between China's regions, to avoid travelers being told their nucleonic acid test results can't be accepted upon arrival.

For glamping, Wang believed local travel authorities would do well to partner with experienced developers and even luxury hotels because while funding and building lodges are easy, it's the top-notch service and management that's hard to achieve quickly.

For years, China's outbound tourism has been the big business story. Now, the pandemic's travel restrictions could lift the game of domestic tourism.

Camping or glamping, trekking or hiking... Chinese travelers keen for the outdoors after months of cabin fever are putting the industry on the trail of recovery. And the longer-term trends of outdoors, eco-friendly, healthy travel could be just the growth driver the industry needs.