Travel sites cashing in on 'blind box' craze

Hu Min
A blind box contains hand-sized toys, and buyers never know what they are getting until they open one. Travel sites are following suit with hotels and airline tickets.
Hu Min

The "blind box" fad has expanded to the tourism industry.

A blind box, known as manghe in China, contains hand-sized toys. A set of boxes contain a number of similar toys with the same style, theme and packaging. Buyers never know what they are getting until they open one.

Many young people in China have become obsessed with it, because they enjoy the fun of uncertainty and the delight of the moment when they open the boxes.

Cashing in on the craze, online travel operator Tongcheng-Elong launched an air ticket blind box product priced at 98 yuan (US$15) earlier this month, attracting more than 20 million buyers and selling out quickly.

People can choose a departure city, while the destination and departure time are both unknown. If they do not like the "content" after opening the box, they can get a full refund.

Other major online tourism service providers in China such as Trip.com and Alibaba's travel site Fliggy have joined the craze with similar products.

Trip.com is offering a hotel blind box priced at 699 and 999 yuan with a one-night accommodation, and a 99-yuan airline blind box with more than 100 domestic destinations.

Unlike the airline blind box, people can choose the destination of the hotel blind box, but they do not know which hotel.

The promotion runs from April 19 to May 12, and Chengdu, Sanya, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Zhuhai are some of the most popular destinations, Trip.com said.

Between today and April 26, Tongcheng-Elong is offering another round of airline blind boxes priced at 98 yuan, with more than 200 destinations and covering the May Day holiday. It has enhanced the promotion with "benefit tickets," such as round-trip and business-class tickets.

"We received a lot of calls from people after the promotion was initially launched and quickly sold out, because they want to 'play' again," said Zhang Chao, who is in charge of blind box for Tongcheng-Elong.

The promotion aims to spur domestic tourism consumption and help the tourism market recover, Zhang said.

Fliggy has launched a 66-yuan airline blind box where people can choose one of two destinations hidden in the box.

"Excluding the airport tax of 50 yuan, the ticket costs only 16 yuan, which is the same as the price of a cup of milk tea," Fliggy said in a WeChat article.

However, despite all the "appealing" and "juicy" promotional wording, the products do not seem to be that "beautiful."

Many of the destinations are either unpopular, require red-eye flights or have workday departure dates.

Insiders said a high refund rate is unavoidable, but the goal of the promotion has been achieved.

Shanghai resident Ji Xiaolin, 29, bought an airline blind box for 98 yuan to Yulin, Shaanxi Province, with a weekday departure date. He applied for a refund immediately.

"I bought it more out of curiosity and the fun of opening it, which is an uncertainty," he said. "But I will not go because I had no idea what the destination would be, and I need to work that day."

Another local resident, Amy Huang, got a ticket to Qingdao, Shandong Province, but the departure time is late on a workday. She applied for a refund as well.

"It's like a lucky draw, but there is a slim chance of getting the one you want," she said. "But still, I enjoyed the fun of opening the box."

Some airline tickets are provincial, such as between Wenzhou and Zhoushan, both in Zhejiang Province, from Wuhan to Enshi in Hubei Province, and between Guiyang and Liupanshui in Guizhou Province.

The departure time of a blind box airline ticket from Shanghai to Wuhan is after 10pm, meaning passengers arrive around midnight.

Insiders said it is more like a promotional campaign than a profit generator, but it helps attract users.

"It's a trendy kind of promotion, which satisfies the psychology of curiosity and adventure," said Gu Huimin, a tourism professor at Beijing International Studies University.

Such products also require buyers to share the products with a certain number of friends, who must log in and check relevant pages to understand the rules

The Shanghai Consumer Council reminded buyers to be careful about the relevant terms.

"Although it attracted many young consumers with low prices and a fresh way to participate, people should be careful," said Huang Huang, an official with the council's legal and research department. "Unlike traditional ways of purchasing airline tickets, blind box purchases have more complicated rules."

"There were several problems based on our purchase experiences as consumers, so people need to be careful," he added. "The departure times are mostly early or late, and some of the destinations are unpopular."

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