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Chinese travelers are opting for lower-cost domestic destinations over foreign tourist spots

A night in China’s Guizhou province at the Cliff Hotel, pictured here, starts around $83, according to Trip.com, which says the hotel was built in 2023 with 34 rooms.

Nurphoto | Nurphoto | Getty Images

BEIJING — Chinese travelers are increasingly opting for cheaper domestic destinations over foreign tourist spots.

Only 14% of high-income households that traveled internationally last year plan to go abroad again in 2024, according to a survey released this month by consulting firm Oliver Wyman. The segment covers families in mainland China earning at least 30,000 yuan a month ($4,140, or about $50,000 a year).

The top reason for preferring their home country was “abundant domestic travel options,” the survey found, followed by “too costly” international travel.

The average cost per person for traveling within mainland China is less than 1,000 yuan, versus several thousand yuan for a trip to Hong Kong or Japan, Oliver Wyman said.

Local tourism has been a bright spot in China’s recovery from Covid-19 controls that ended in late 2022. Travel booking site Trip.com said that in 2023, bookings for rural destinations in China grew by 2.6 times versus pre-pandemic levels.

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During a public holiday this year from May 1 to May 5, domestic tourism trips and revenue surged versus pre-pandemic levels in 2019, official data showed. International trips were slightly below 2019 levels, according to a CNBC analysis of official figures.

Within mainland China, smaller cities such as Yangzhou, Luoyang, Qinhuangdao, Guilin and Zibo saw the fastest growth in tourism bookings during the May holiday, Oliver Wyman said.

“This year, domestic tourism will surpass pre-pandemic levels,” said Ashley Dudarenok, founder of China digital consultancy ChoZan.

She expects recovery in Chinese traveling internationally to take longer, partly as “the feeling that the rest of the world is mad and unsafe is even higher than in 2023.”

In contrast, a record number of people in the U.S. in the last two years have applied for passports to travel abroad. A Skyscanner report said 85% of U.S. travelers plan to take at least as many international trips this year as in 2023, if not more.

U.S. and Chinese officials held a summit in Xi’an city last week to promote tourism between the two countries.

The moment you go viral you will have thousands of tourists at your doorsteps.

Ashley Dudarenok

ChoZan, founder

It’s unclear as to what extent tourist interest in less developed parts of China will persist, and whether it will translate into sustainable growth. But the near-term impact on some localities is significant.

The southern Guangxi autonomous region, home to Guilin’s famous limestone hills, issued a plan for boosting consumption this year by increasing publicity and tourist subsidies.

In the first quarter, officials said the region’s tourism revenue rose by nearly 24% year on year to 258.18 billion yuan. Local authorities said performing arts subsidies from the local governments helped generate 48.3 million yuan in ticket sales to 230,000 people, stimulating about 460 million yuan in economic activity.

About 2.5-hour-long flight to the east of Guangxi is the Nanjing city wall tourist site. It received nearly 1.3 million visitors in the first quarter, generating a revenue of 19.2 million yuan — double that of 2019, according to local media.

Competition for media eyeballs

Local governments outside China’s big cities have been stepping up their efforts to attract tourists, primarily through social media.

Guangxi officials earlier this month said its promotional videos on apps such as ByteDance’s Douyin and Xiaohongshu, known in English as “Little Red Book” or “Red,” had millions of viewers.

“They try to go viral, they try to involve their community, cultural heritage, put it all online,” Dudarenok said. “The moment you go viral you will have thousands of tourists at your doorsteps.”

People have flocked to the town of Zibo in the eastern province of Shandong after its barbecue skewer culture took off on social media last year. Similarly, three million visitors poured into Harbin city over the three-day New Year’s Eve holiday after its ice sculptures and unique northern customs gained traction on social media.

TV Shows featuring specific regions have also helped boost tourism.

Thanks to a television drama set in Altay, the remote part of Xinjiang province in the far west saw a nearly 38% surge in visitors from a year ago during the first three days of this year’s May holiday, according to iQiyi, which released the mini-series.

“The TV shows are a great draw,” Dudarenok said, adding that “food is always the most important reason for Chinese tourists to travel.”

China’s expansive network of high-speed trains and flights has made it easier for people to visit small towns, even for just two or three days.

Domestic air ticket bookings on Trip.com surged by 30% in the first quarter from a year ago, the company said last week. It noted that Chinese consumers are now placing greater emphasis on “emotional fulfillment,” prompting interest in personalized trips.

“Intensifying marketing efforts in many provinces effectively encouraged travelers to explore diverse destinations,” Trip.com management said on its earnings call, according to a FactSet transcript.

Businesses and local governments are collaborating in other ways to boost attention, if not revenue.

Officials from tourist spots and local governments have reached out to Miss Tourism Asia pageant for promotions, said Yang Hua, president of the organizing committee.

“Right now, China’s domestic tourism industry is relatively scattered,” Yang said in Mandarin, translated by CNBC. He hopes to create destination-specific events for cities that can attract visitors for the next several years.

Miss Tourism Asia filmed a promotional fashion video last year of contestants in the desert around Xinjiang’s Aral city, and held the pageant’s finals on Jan. 1, 2024, in the southern city of Dongguan in Guangzhou province.

Chinese consumers’ current preference for domestic travel means that a full recovery in international travel to 2019 levels likely won’t come until late 2025, half a year later than previously forecast, according to Oliver Wyman.

In the longer-term, Dudarenok expects that international tourist destinations will need to upgrade their experience to match the rise of stylish, modern hotels and other travel services in China.

“Chinese tourists [are] not so easy to please,” she said.

— CNBC’s Greg Iacurci and Yulia Jiang contributed to this report.

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