Countries embrace returning Chinese travelers for Lunar New Year and beyond
"My family and I decided to visit Tanzania to relax and to see animals. It is our first time here, and we are enjoying it," said Wang Shupeng, a 40-year-old father of twin daughters from Beijing, who chose the East African country for his family Lunar New Year trip.
The two 12-year-olds were fascinated by local culture, community life, and wildlife scenes and particularly excited about the safari in Serval Wildlife, a wildlife sanctuary located in the Siha district of the Kilimanjaro region at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain.
Li Miaomiao, a mother to a 9-year-old son and a resident of Lanzhou, the capital city of northwest China's Gansu Province, embarked on a much-anticipated journey to Thailand at the end of January.
It was the first international flight that China Eastern Airlines had resumed in Gansu in three years, and the first passenger route linking Thailand was restored this winter at the airport in Lanzhou.
Families such as the Wangs and Lis are symbolic of the Chinese's renewed interest in overseas journeys to celebrate the cherished Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.
China's outbound tourism is riding a vigorous upward tide, with domestic tourism surpassing expectations and returning to the pre-pandemic level. In December last year, China's international air passenger traffic reached a high point of over 60 percent of the corresponding level in 2019. In 2023, for example, Chinese tourists in Slovenia almost tripled the 2022 figure, according to the country's statistical office.
Between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese tourists are expected to visit Thailand during this year's Spring Festival holiday, more than three times 2023 levels, said Chanapan Kaewklachaiyawuth, vice president of the Thai Chinese Tourism Alliance Association.
A recent Oxford Economics report forecasts the number of international outbound trips taken by Chinese travelers in 2024 will roughly double relative to 2023, bouncing back to nearly 80 percent of 2019 volumes.
The optimism is echoed in the World Tourism Barometer, published by the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) last month. "Outbound and inbound tourism from China is expected to proliferate in 2024 due to visa facilitation and increased airline capacity," it said.
Symbolism and decor
From boutique shops to culinary hotspots and iconic landmarks worldwide, businesses are embracing the allure of Loong culture in the Year of the Dragon, appealing to returning Chinese travelers.
Luisaviaroma, a Florence-based boutique store since 1929, plans to celebrate the Year of the Dragon with an immersive in-store installation in collaboration with Chinese designers.
The core element of the dedicated installation at the boutique store will be bamboo, an extremely symbolic material for Chinese culture, representing toughness, grace and harmony.
"As we understood from the Chinese culture, the year of the dragon is particularly important, and we respect Chinese culture a lot," said Stefanie Yi, the enterprise's senior marketing and PR manager for Asia region.
In the Dutch village of Giethoorn, praised as "the Venice of the North," Gabriella Esselbrugge, a tourism entrepreneur, plans to develop boat and biking tours in the village and the national park, popular activities among Chinese tourists.
In central London, the Michelin-starred restaurant Hakkasan unveiled a Year of Loong menu featuring such elements as dragon and Chinese lanterns, and cocktails inspired by Chinese paper cutting.
"It is fantastic that borders are open and restrictions are lifted, and we can really welcome back all of loyal customers, but also some new ones, too," said Lauren Dodds, the gastronomic gem's marketing manager.
The Jungfrau Railways, operating in the Jungfrau region of the Swiss Alps, a World Heritage Site, decorated its platforms and trains with elements related to the Year of Loong from February 8 to 20, said Urs Kessler, CEO of Jungfrau Railways.
The Railways also set up a special Chinese Noodle bar with many Asian delicacies in the Grindelwald Terminal and offers Chinese menus on Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe, to attract Chinese tourists.
In the face of the burgeoning demand among Chinese tourists, airlines are scaling up their international operations.
China Southern Airlines launched a new flight between Nairobi and the Chinese city of Guangzhou on December 21, 2023.
"We scheduled two weekly flights between the two cities before, and now we have three. The move is expected to increase the volume of trade and cultural interactions between the two countries, so we are keeping a close eye on Africa's tourism market," said Liu Wenbin, the general manager of China Southern Airlines Nairobi Office.
Hainan Airlines' HU489 flight from Beijing to Berlin has resumed to pre-pandemic levels, with three flights per week during the winter-spring season, and is scheduled to increase frequency to five flights per week from April 2024, the airlines' Berlin office told Xinhua in an interview.
Policymakers from global tourist destinations are keen to attract Chinese holidaymakers, not least with visa-free policies.
In a video message last week, Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin warmly welcomed Chinese tourists after the two countries sealed a mutual visa exemption agreement, which will come into effect from March 1.
The Southeast Asian country aims to attract 8 million tourists from China, more than double the figure from 2023 and constituting 75 percent of the pre-pandemic peak recorded in 2019.
Singapore, which also signed a visa-free agreement with China last month, experienced a recovery in its tourism sector last year, with the Chinese mainland topping its tourist spending chart.
Malaysia's visa-free deal for Chinese started in December last year. The country hopes to attract 5-7 million Chinese visitors this year, almost double pre-pandemic levels.
"We are here in Nauru. If you look us up, we are a very small place on the map, but we have a very big heart," Charmaine Scotty, Nauru's minister for health and internal affairs, told Xinhua in an interview. "And we certainly welcome you to come to our island."
"We are creating a comprehensive tourism product that will move all Chinese visitors," said Dimitris Fragakis, secretary general of the Greek National Tourism Organization. He said more direct flights connecting Athens to Beijing and Shanghai are also scheduled to bolster travel.
The Indonesian government aims to attract 1 to 1.5 million tourists from China in 2024 by prioritizing programs to appeal to young Chinese travelers who crave authentic experiences.
"In Yogyakarta, for example, we have chocolate making and buffalo bathing. We want to invite them to experience these tourism activities," said Wisnu Sindhutrisno, director of regional tourism marketing from Indonesia's Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy.
"We are very much looking forward to 2024, the first normal year after 2019," said Daniela Chiani, director for Greater China at Switzerland Tourism. "We expect right now around 1 million to 1.2 million overnight stays from Greater China in 2024, or around 65 percent of the 2019 levels."
Jungfrau region expects the number of Chinese visitors to bounce back to 60 percent of pre-epidemic levels in 2024 and return to pre-epidemic levels in 2025, said Kessler.
Ivana Jelinic, president and CEO of the Italian National Tourist Board, projects that Chinese tourists visiting Italy will return to pre-pandemic levels, and their arrivals may even reach "new peaks" this year, starting from the Spring Festival holiday in China.
She believes that Chinese tourism is crucial for various tourism destinations in Italy, adding that the benefits can extend to all economic sectors impacted by an increase in incoming flows, including not only hospitality and direct services to tourists but also the entire sector of Made in Italy, retail, luxury, food and wine.
China, too, is enhancing its allure to foreign tourists by broadening its visa-free policies.
China's recent extension of the visa-free policy to Switzerland and Ireland, in addition to five EU countries and Malaysia, was hailed by the UN tourism body as a significant advancement in the global tourism industry's recovery. The resurgence of Chinese outbound tourism presents an opportunity to invigorate the global tourism and service industries while encouraging meaningful cross-border interactions and fostering greater mutual understanding.
A recent Reuters report noted Chinese travelers' appetite shift from shop-til-you-drop group tours to niche, flexible, and experience-based trips, for example, focusing on meditation, cooking, or photography. As quality of life heads up, the younger generation in the world's second-largest economy is leveling up their holiday as well.
"Promoting the building of a strong country and the great cause of national rejuvenation through a Chinese path to modernization is not only a bright road for the Chinese people to pursue a better and happier life but also a just one to promote world peace and development," said Chinese President Xi Jinping at a Spring Festival reception.
"The whole world has been waiting for China to open up more, and now Chinese tourists are coming back," UN World Tourism Organization secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili told Xinhua ahead of the International Tourism Fair. "At the same time, everyone wants to visit China, and its fantastic cultural heritage is well worth visiting."