SHANGHAI -- The weeklong Lunar New Year holiday in China usually brings with it a wave of consumer spending, fueled by the bonuses offered by many companies. But this year, much of the surge looks likely to be siphoned into Japan and other parts of Asia as higher incomes and looser visa requirements encourage travel.
With the holiday kicking off this coming Wednesday, many Chinese cities are in the midst of an unprecedented travel boom.
"Overseas travel is explosively popular," says the president of a travel agency in Chongqing. Guangdong Nanhu International Travel Service reports that half of its reservations are for trips abroad.
More than half of respondents to a January survey by Chinese online travel service provider Ctrip.com International reported planning to go overseas for the holiday, surpassing for the first time those staying in China. Destinations with warm climates were popular, including Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
The number of customers making reservations for Thailand's Phuket and Indonesia's Bali is 20% higher than for Lunar New Year last year, according to an official at Shanghai China Youth Travel Service. China Southern Airlines says it plans to add more than 600 flights for the month or so around the holiday, including 200 to Bangkok alone.
Detour from 'Golden Route'
Japan is also a popular destination thanks to loosened visa requirements. A travel agency president thinks that the number of travelers to Japan from Chongqing, which started direct flights to Kansai Airport this past July, will jump 60% from last year.
"I'm taking my children to Tokyo Disneyland," a Shanghai housewife says, looking excited.
Visiting Osaka, Kyoto and Hakone before returning from Tokyo is the so-called Golden Route. But Chinese travelers are looking at a wider range of destinations this year.
"We set up and sold out of a tour where travelers stay at traditional inns in Toyama, go to hot springs and make masu [trout] sushi, a local specialty," remarks an official at China Travel Service Head Office in Dalian.
Shopping is one pursuit tourists in Japan look forward to.
"I'm going to buy a rice cooker, an Apple PC and Japanese cosmetics," says an elementary-school teacher in Chengdu who is traveling to Okinawa.
An official at a travel agency in Guangzhou points out that "many people buy large quantities of high-quality, affordable Japanese products, such as cosmetics and daily necessities."
Vacancies at home
No accurate statistics exist on overseas spending by Chinese vacationers during the holiday. The Fortune Character Institute, a research organization, estimates that spending by Chinese on brand-name products came to $106 billion last year -- 46% of the worldwide total -- with $81 billion of this abroad. The spending power of Chinese tourists, who exceeded 100 million for the first time last year, is hard to fathom.
But while purse strings are loosening overseas, spending at home leaves something to be desired.
At the New World Department Store in downtown Beijing, a gift section with an array of tobacco products and alcohol is nearly deserted. The store says 20% less floor space has been devoted to special sections for the new year.
"Restaurant reservations were booked solid during the Lunar New Year holiday last year, but there are vacant spots this year, aside from the night of New Year's Eve, Feb. 18," admits a staffer at a luxury hotel in Chongqing.
Retail sales growth for the holiday has been slowing year by year, with the 13.3% rise in 2014 smallest since data collection began in 2005. This year, the impact of the economic slowdown and the government's austerity drive mean that sales will probably remain sluggish, particularly for luxury goods.