TOKYO/ BANGKOK -- Asia's hotels, airlines and travel agencies are preparing for a rush of Chinese tourists during the Lunar New Year this week, as consumers refuse to abandon holiday plans despite the slowing economy and uncertain outlook back home.
Travel agencies and tourism authorities in Thailand and Japan -- the top two destinations for Chinese tourists -- said bookings this year were up for the world's largest annual human migration.
While the level of average spending will not be clear until after the holiday, Ctrip, China’s largest online travel platform, said its bookings showed that travelers were opting for relatively more expensive individual travel packages rather than cheaper group tours.
China is caught in a spiral of slowing growth with crippling debt weighing on its companies and the trade war with U.S. hitting exports. Last year, new vehicle sales fell for the first time in 28 years. But Chinese consumers are still avid for new and sometimes costly experiences both inside and outside their country.
More than 400 million Chinese are expected to hit the road, up from 386 million last year, according to data compiled by Ctrip, China’s largest online travel platform. About 7 million are expected to make overseas expeditions, rising from about 6.5 million in 2018.
Among those who registered to travel through Ctrip travel platform, 48% chose non-group tours, such as individual trips, customized travel or private group tours which can be organized by two people. This rate is increasing, as "more personalized way of travel" is becoming popular, said a company spokesperson.
"The fee of private group tours is generally about 23% higher than that of regular group tours," said Xiao Yinyuan, head of Ctrip’s outbound tour business. Customized travel, a more individualized version of a private group tour, enables tourists to discuss with their professional "tour designers" to customize a travel program.
In the premium segment, bookings at Ctrip have more than doubled during this year’s holiday from a year earlier. Ctrip increased the number of designers to more than 5,000 to cater the surging demand for flexible tours, yet they are still not enough, said the report.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China forecasts a sharp rise in air-tickets sales. During the 40-day travel rush from Jan. 21 to Mar. 1, air travelers are expected to make 73 million domestic and international trips, up 12% year-on-year.
One of China's biggest airlines, China Southern Airlines, is expecting to carry more than 12 million passengers for the period, up 4% from 2018. The company is temporarily increasing the number of flights by nearly 5,300, of which 500 are dedicated to international routes, including flights between Guangzhou/ Shenzhen and Southeast Asia. It is also upgrading some narrow body aircraft to twin aisle wide-bodies to carry more passengers.
China Eastern Airlines is also adding extra flights in February, including routes between Shanghai and Japan’s Nagoya.
Chinese outbound travelers have booked tours in more than 96 countries and territories, Ctrip’s data shows, with the farthest reaching Antarctica. Thailand remains the most popular destination among Chinese this year, followed by Japan. Despite China’s trade spat with the U.S., the northern American county still remains the most booked long-haul destination.
"Around 1.2 million Chinese tourists are expected to come during the Chinese New Year celebration, up by nearly 10% from the same period of last year," said Chairat Trirattanajarasporn, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand (TCT), adding that around 90% of hotels in Bangkok and other major cities have been already booked ahead of the New Year.
"The average duration is around five to seven days per trip, which is likely the same as last year. However, spending is likely to rise and we tried to attract them to spend more money during their trip to Thailand," said Chairat.
Currently, Chinese tourists are spending about 50,000 baht per head per trip, up from around 40,000 baht in the same period of last year. However, the TCT said it expected to push up spending to abound 53,000 baht per head per trip this year. They are hoping that several specially planned events and celebrations in Bangkok and other major cities will encourage Chinese tourists to spend more.
Worasit Phongkhamphang, a member of Samui Tourism Association said the influx of Chinese tourists had started, with around 11 direct flights per week from China's major cities to Samui Island starting last week. About 50% of the 4,000 foreign tourists coming into Samui a day were Chinese. This was encouraging given the drop in tourists last year after a tour boat accident off Phuket in July.
"I think the bad news is over and now more Chinese tourists will come,” said Worasit. Some 95% of hotels and resorts in Samui Island had been booked, he said, and most of the Chinese tourists were due to stay until February 15 during the Chinese New Year.
Japanese travel agency JTB said bookings for the Chinese New Year from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong had surged 14% on last year. “Tourists from Greater China now tend to go to local and sometimes niche destinations,” said a company spokesperson.
The number of bookings for drift ice sightseeing in Abashiri increased by nearly 2.5 times, despite its difficult access which requires sightseers to travel more than hours on a train from Sapporo, a major city on the northern island of Hokkaido. “Guests will need to have longer stays for their trips and, as a result, increase their spending,” she added.
Nearly all of the 800 rooms at the Hoshino Resorts Tomamu, a ski resort in Hokkaido, have been booked until mid-February. Around 60% of its customers are from foreign countries, which includes Hong Kong, Singapore and China. "The number of Chinese guests nearly tripled in five years, and has the highest increase among any nationals," said a spokesperson.
Nikkei staff writer Nikki Sun in Hong Kong contributed to this report.