After three years of the pandemic, China is finally reopening its borders and abolishing all its COVID-19 policies. Beginning on January 8th, 2023, China adjusted its immigration administration policies and procedures, dropping its quarantine requirements upon entry. Hence, overseas retailers and brands can expect an increase in Chinese travelers.
Since the start of the pandemic, Chinese outbound tourism has suffered and domestic tourism was on ice for almost three years. Nevertheless, in the past few years, Chinese tourists have topped the global tourism rankings, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, Chinese travelers spent an estimated 106 billion U.S. dollars on foreign travel. Now that China reopened its borders, tourism is bound to skyrocket.
In response to the pandemic, Beijing imposed restrictions on Chinese citizens, requiring them to have a valid justification for obtaining a passport or leaving the country, usually for business purposes. Furthermore, on December 26th 2022 China announced the loosening of the mandatory quarantine when entering China which was followed by a spike in passport and visa applications as Chinese are getting ready to leave the country and the passports expire after 5 years.
Going overseas is still not smooth sailing for many Chinese tourists
Although most of overseas countries have opened their visa applications, due to staff shortage in many embassies and consulates in China, the visa applications were delayed as demand was huge.
With the unexpected potential new wave of COVID-19 coming from China, a list of countries implemented a negative COVID-19 test requirement or other related restrictions explicitly for Chinese travelers.
Countries/ regions that require negative COVID-19 results or impose restrictions for travelers coming from China:
- South Korea
- United States
- Czech Republic
- United Kingdom
- Taiwan (China)
When are Chinese consumers are expected to travel again?
The Chinese New Year (CNY) marked the first major wave of Chinese tourism. Analysis of Ctrip data shows overseas travel for the seven-day Lunar New Year holiday surged by 540% compared to last year’s Spring Festival. From CNY onward, we can expect more waves of outbound tourists.
Next waves of Chinese outbound tourism
As Chinese company’s paid time off for employees is relatively low, Chinese tourism tends to be concentrated on their major national holidays. The next Chinese holidays are going to be:
- Labor Day from April 29th to May 3rd 2023
- Dragon boat festival which takes place from June 22nd to 24th 2023
- Qingming Festival on April 4th 2023
- Mid-Autumn Festival
- National Day from September 29th to October 6th 2023, representing the second major holiday period after the Chinese New Year.
These prolonged weekends are providing Chinese people with an opportunity to take a short trip outside the country.
So what were popular destinations for Chinese travelers before the COVID-19 pandemic? From 2019’s data, we can see that more than 54.8% of Chinese respondents indicated that their tourism destinations were concentrated in Southeast Asia/ South Asia, 46.9% in East Asia/ North Asia and 42.6% in Hongkong, Macao and Taiwan (China). With 27.9%, the share of travelers to Europe is relatively small. Share of Chinese tourists visiting Australia and New Zealand is 20.5%, Central and North America at 15.9%. The lowest share of visitors was recorded in South America, Africa and the Middle East, accounting for less than 10% of respondents.
Where are Chinese travelers going next?
Destinations that were popular before the pandemic will likely regain their popularity. In particular, destinations in Greater China, Southeast, and East Asia are expected to recover faster than other destinations due to their close proximity to China, availability of flights, and perceived safety and convenience as the first travel destinations after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between December 26th, 2022 and January 5th, 2023, there was an 83% increase in searches for outbound flights from mainland China on Ctrip, China’s number one travel booking platform, with a 59% increase in bookings. The most popular destinations for these cross-border flights were Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan (China), Thailand, Australia, Singapore, the United States, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, and Indonesia. What is missing from the list is South Korea and Japan, two countries that normally rank high in Chinese travel destinations, but are off to a low start due to the negative impact of their requirements for arrivals from China to undergo COVID-19 tests.
Southeast Asia remains the top destination for Chinese tourists
During the Lunar New Year holiday, the number of mainland Chinese tourists traveling to Southeast Asian countries saw a 1,026% increase compared to the same time last year. Air ticket bookings from China to Southeast Asia rose 864% year-on-year. Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Indonesia were the top five most popular destination countries for mainland Chinese tourists. On the Ctrip platform, Thailand was the top destination for Chinese travelers during the Spring Festival holiday. Additionally, Singapore saw a 499% rise in mainland tourists traveling there for the Lunar New Year, Malaysia a 584% increase, and Cambodia and Indonesia each had more than 10 times the number of visitors than the same period last year.
In response to the recent gestures of several Southeast Asian countries inviting Chinese tourists, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin expressed that China will continue to provide more convenience for travelers by optimizing and adjusting relevant measures. Collaboration with all parties will also be carried out to ensure the safe and orderly movement of both Chinese and foreign individuals.
On January 9th 2023, Thai Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Health Anutin as well as other officials had gone to the airport with the slogan “China and Thailand are a family” to give flowers and souvenirs to the first batch of tourists arriving in Thailand after China improved its immigration prevention policy. Indonesian Tourism and Creative Economy Minister, Sandiaga Uno, announced at a regular briefing on the same day that Indonesia “has prepared a red carpet for Chinese tourists”. Besides, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos also released an invitation for Chinese travelers to return and enjoy the southeast Asian country. Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed his hope of receiving two million Chinese tourists this year.
Japan and Korea’s status as popular tourist destinations suffered
In contrast, like in the case of Japan and Korea, China is feeling discriminated by the “excessive” travel restrictions imposed by these countries on Chinese citizens, like the suspension and issuance of short-term visas, including travel visas to Chinese visitors. This led to retaliatory action from the Chinese side deteriorating both countries relations. The Chinese embassies in Seoul and Tokyo declared that Beijing would no longer grant short-term visas to South Korean and Japanese citizens coming to China for commerce, leisure, medical care, transit, and other personal matters, in response to the travel limits that both countries have imposed on Chinese tourists. Even though China and Japan have reinstated the visa process, travel between the two countries will remain disrupted. Starting on February 6th 2023, China will permit tour groups to twenty countries, but Japan will not be among them.
What do Chinese travelers purchase while abroad?
Based on social listening research on Xiaohongshu, we investigated what products Chinese travel KOLs and general users are talking about in several destinations.
- Luxury brands such as Hermes, MaxMara, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Loewe, etc.
- Popular product categories are handbags, watches, scarves, jewelries, etc.
- Hot shopping locations: Lafayette, El Corte Ingles, airport duty-free store, Outlets, etc.
- Consumers care about tax refund percentage and tax refund process.
Beauty and Cosmetics:
- For longer time stay, consumers may also use e-commerce apps such as Selfridges or official websites.
- Famous brands which are also sold in China, but with lower price in Europe such as La Prairie and Helena Rubinstein.
- High-end beauty salon brands such as Pier Auge which may not officially enter China market but have been recommended by KOLs.
Handmade Accessories & Vintage:
- Handmade stores/vintage of jewelries are popular.
- Florence is highly mentioned.
- There are Daigous selling vintage jewelries only, because it’s hard for travelers to approach variety of vintage stores during a short trip.
Clothing Brands with High Discounts:
- Brands such as Sandro, Maje, Toteme and Acne Studio are quite hot among Chinese young consumers.
- They are not so expensive as luxury brands, but the price gap among different countries is large.
Health Care Products:
- Hair-growth related product, collagen protein capsule, deep sea fish oil and eye protection tablets are highly recommended.
This post from Xiaohongshu is advising Chinese tourists on what bags to buy in Australia. The KOL is highlighting how Gucci bags are more affordable in Australia than they are in China. When visiting Australia, opt for the pricier bags as the difference in cost is substantial. For example, while this Dioysus series GG bag is priced at RMB 21,200 in China, it is only around RMB 16,000 in Australia. “Brands like Furla and Oroton are much more affordable in Australia than in other countries around the world.”, the KOL says.
- Local brands: Clinique, Estee Lauder, Kiehl’s, Benefit, MAC, Origins
- Others: Chanel, Lancôme, Dior, Clarins
Fashion (brands which are regarded as mid-to-high-end brands in China, sportswear):
- MK, Coach, TB, KS (in Outlets)
- A|X Armani Exchange, Calvin Klein, DKNY, Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger
- Beauty in tax free stores
- Korean Idols’ merch (photobook, poster, albums)
- Local fashion brands: GM, tamburins, emis, Mardi Mercredi
- Streetwear brands, Pharmaceuticals
- Korean duty-free shops are so popular because they offer great discounts on a wide range of products, from cosmetics to luxury goods, making them much cheaper than those available in other countries.
- Cosmetics, luxury handbags and clothing
- Popular product categories are handbags, watches, jewelries, etc.
- Japan still has exchange rate advantage for international visitors during these days.
Local Brands with Price Advantage
- COVID-19 related products are highly popular for Chinese consumers these days.
- The Japanese magazine LDK will be translated by Chinese KOLs, and then influence the purchase of Chinese consumers.
- Another user draws attention to cosmetic products with discount promotions and product lines for the spring festival, as seen in this case MAC cosmetics in the Ginza shopping mall in Tokyo:
- Snacks are the most highly recommended present.
- Many snacks in Japan have city limited edition.
Hong Kong is renowned for being a shopping mecca, especially since mainland Chinese tourists have been able to take advantage of customs clearance. This user is listing some of the places to shop in Hong Kong:
- Luxury: “Prada is a good buy!! Tory Burch sometimes has discounts, as well as Parisian house, Versace and IT.”
- Branded Outlets
The post below shows pharmaceutical products that should not be missed when visiting Macau. The medicines range from cold and flu remedies (幸福伤风感冒素) to skin ointments VG Ointment Eczema Cream.
- Ointment: Acne Cream, Green Herb Cream, Anti-itch cream
- Local beauty brands: Mistine, Happy Sunday, 4U2
- Local cheap clothes/bags/accessories in the market
When going on a trip, it is important to pick up a few souvenirs to bring back to your friends and family. Here is a suggestion from a Chinese netizen about some of the best local specialties to purchase before leaving Singapore:
What can we learn from the reopening of the borders?
- Beginning on January 8th, 2023, China adjusted its immigration administration policies and procedures, dropping its quarantine requirements upon entry with the Chinese New Year marking the first major wave of tourism.
- Since the start of the pandemic, Chinese outbound tourism has suffered and domestic tourism was put on ice for almost three years.
- With the unexpected potential new wave of COVID-19 coming from China, a list of countries implemented a negative COVID-19 test requirement or other related restrictions explicitly for Chinese travelers.
- As Western nations require Chinese travelers to take COVID-19 tests, Southeast Asia is seeing a rise in Chinese tourists, with leaders in the region offering a warm welcome.
- The implementation of COVID-19 prevention policies targeted at Chinese citizens resulted in a decrease in popularity of Japan and Korea as tourist destinations.
- Chinese KOLs and general users discussing products to buy in Europe, Oceania, USA, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Hong Kong (China) are mainly recommending luxury brands, beauty and cosmetics, handmade accessories and vintage, clothing brands with high discounts, health care products, ointments, local beauty brands, watches, snacks, branded outlets, and souvenirs. They are also highlighting how some products are cheaper in certain countries due to exchange rates and tax refunds. They suggest taking advantage of the great discounts in duty free stores.
Author: Daniel Rakewitsch
Learn about the travel retail industry in China