China's outbound group tours to see 'strong rebound' in Q2, says industry
He Jingyi
Passengers wait for departure at Beijing Daxing International Airport, Beijing, China on January 30, 2023. /CFP
Passengers wait for departure at Beijing Daxing International Airport, Beijing, China on January 30, 2023. /CFP

Passengers wait for departure at Beijing Daxing International Airport, Beijing, China on January 30, 2023. /CFP

A little past midnight on February 6, a group of people took an Emirates flight, EK363, to Dubai at China's Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. This is the first outbound group tour that marked the end of a three-year stagnation of such activity in China. 

China resumed outbound group tours to 20 countries on Monday, raising hopes that its multi-billion dollar travel business will soon flourish again. However, the positive effects of stronger tourism activity due to the resumption of China's outbound travel activity may only be expected to be seen in the second quarter, according to travel industry leaders.

"In the first quarter of 2023, the outbound tourism market is still in the initial recovery stage. Visa issues and limited flights are the main reasons for most consumers to stay on the sidelines," Cao Xu, vice president of the Chinese online travel company Tuniu told CGTN on Friday.

He expects the outbound tourism market to show a strong rebound from the second quarter, with further growth expected during the May Day holiday, as outbound supply chain is expected to gradually recover by the end of February and March.

Zou Feng, the deputy director of the Guangdong Tourism Association, also anticipated a boost in tourism during the second quarter, reported South China Morning Post (SCMP), citing concerns about coronavirus outbreaks overseas and high ticket prices.

"People have waited for three years, there is no need to rush," he told SCMP.

China's changing travel habits after 3 years of pause

"This year's Spring Festival experience shows that consumers' travel habits have changed after being held up for three years," Cao told CGTN.

In the past three years, the tourism market during the Spring Festival mainly focused on short trips lasting three days at most. But this year, 48 percent of travelers chose a trip lasting four to six days, and more than 20 percent chose a seven-day or longer trip, data provided by Tuniu showed.

Travel distance and travel days have relatively increased, according to Cao.

Jiang Wen, CEO of Ctrip's group tour business, said that demand for overseas long-term travel is also picking up. One example was Ctrip's first outbound trip to New Zealand, which left Shanghai on March 18 with an average price of 27,999 yuan ($4,111.82) per person. Tickets were sold out immediately, he said.

Data from the travel platform Ctrip showed that within half an hour of the announcement, searches for popular overseas destinations had increased 10-fold. The Qunar platform said it saw a seven-fold increase in international flight searches within the first 15 minutes.

"This reflects that tourists are regaining confidence in outbound travel," Jiang said.

Another biggest difference compared with three years ago was the fastest rise in outbound tourism seen among people born in the 1990s and 2000s, a report from Ctrip showed on Wednesday. These young guests are not as price sensitive but are more inclined to choose quality travel, said Lin Chenjun, manager of Orient Legende Conference & Travel Services, a company that provides tailor-made private guided services in all of Switzerland and the neighboring countries.

Lin told CGTN that the demand for customized and private tours is growing as young consumers want more flexibility and freedom in travel.

He noted that an increasing number of people come to him under the influence of the KOLs (key opinion leaders) on social media like the Chinese lifestyle-sharing platform Little Red Book.

"People were stuck at home during COVID and all they can do is to see the world through others' lenses. Once they can travel, they are inclined to follow these fabulous lifestyles shared on the internet," Lin said. "It's not just about money but life."

Preparation works for the travel industry rebound

Seeing the eagerness of the market, Chinese travel agencies and airlines are now jostling for the resumption of outbound group tour services. 

Tour agencies have already launched new products and expanded marketing channels including live streaming. To date, Tuniu has launched nearly 400 "flight ticket + hotel" packages related to outbound tourism. While Ctrip has launched nearly 1,200 outbound group and packaged air tickets and hotel products, as of February 6.

China Southern Airlines, for example, has reopened 48 round-trip routes to 12 destination countries as of Wednesday. China Eastern Airlines is expected to resume 60 international and regional routes, offering 410 flights per week, by the end of the month, with a focus on Southeast Asia, and the Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan regions.

In terms of talent development, the outflow of talent in the sector in the past three years was obvious, agencies told CGTN that they all have plans to supplement their workforce with new staff.

Airlines have also restarted recruitment drives to ensure smooth operations. From February 12, Tianjin Airlines and three others will jointly recruit security officers and flight attendants. China Eastern Airlines will also start its first recruitment campaign on February 20. 

Xie Li, a professor at the Civil Aviation Management Academy of China, told Cailian Press that the industry is expected to recover quickly as travel demand and flights resume.

Meanwhile, Lin said he remained confident that a full recovery will take place. 

"To be honest, there is a certain gap with our expectations, but judging from the overall recovery situation, we are still very confident for a full recovery," he said.

"At the moment, boosting confidence is more important than making money."

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