(Editor's Note, 19 June 2020: A fresh wave of COVID-19 infections have been reported in Beijing, leading to renewed travel restrictions. This article was written before this occurred, and uses data prior to the second wave.)

As parts of the world continue to grapple with COVID-19, China has already been moving forward.

The beginning signs of recovery from COVID-19 started in Hubei back in March, and has progressed to an above-expectations number of domestic trips within China during the Labour Day weekend in May.

China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism reported over 115 million trips, providing strong evidence of China rebounding.

As China looks to encourage domestic tourism, we break down the travel plans and talk about the importance of FITs, or Free Independent Travellers, to hospitality and travel providers.

Holiday Recovery in China

With Chinese New Year 2020 heavily disrupted due to COVID-19, China travellers have been itching to travel.

A Kantar China Insights research report we previously referred to back in March ranked ‘travel’ as number 2 on list of activities that respondents wanted to resume, and evidence has shown that they’ve taken the initiative once restrictions were loosened.

China has 7 annual holidays slated in a year, and the most recent national holiday, Labour Day (or May Day, as it is called in China) holiday is a 5-day affair.

CGTN - Past Years Spends during May Day Holiday (2017 - 2020)

Hotels and hospitality groups across the country were expecting a crowd of up to 90 million visitors, but that number was exceeded in the final tally with 115 million trips made.

While this was 40% lower than the 2019’s numbers, it was still an estimated domestic tourism revenue of about 47.56 billion yuan (or 6.72 billion U.S. dollars). (CGTN, 7 May 2020)

As China continues to recover, we can expect to see more travellers venturing out of their provinces.

China Trending: Domestic Tourism

The main trend for hospitality, travel and tourism providers have been the surge in domestic tourism within China’s borders.

This is due to a number of factors, including the physical inability to travel overseas due to closed borders.

Other reasons related to the need to support local, and the fear of contracting the virus overseas, according to a research report by Oliver Wyman, a management consulting group.

The widespread implementation of safety measures at high-traffic tourist locations has helped ease the fear of travelling locally, as sites encourage wearing masks, control the number of visitors, and more. (Xinhua Net, 5 May 2020)

During the first three months of 2020, as Chinese travellers were under lockdown, mobile usage soared, with an average of over 5 hours per day on apps, an increase of 30% over 2019. This was shared in a piece by Data Portal.

These users were not just relaxing at home; they were spending time taking virtual tours of tourist destinations, talking to their fellow citizens about China-friendly countries, and most importantly, planning their travels. (Data Reportal, 23 April 2020)

A recent survey conducted by PATA, Ivy Alliance and China Comfort Travel showed that Asian destinations are the first choice of many Chinese tourists for their overseas travel as and when global travel bans are lifted. (PATA, 25 March 2020)

For hotels, travel and hospitality providers outside of China, this is the sign for you to ramp up your marketing activities.

By remaining top of their minds, you are ensuring that the moment the pandemic is over, or when countries have lifted their travel bans, that China visitors looking to travel overseas will choose your brand or business.

This is especially pertinent for providers in Asia, as 57% of Chinese travellers are looking to travel within Asia first.

Importance of FITs to Hospitality and Travel, Post COVID-19

To narrow your focus, concentrate on the Free Independent Travellers (FITs) group.

As compared to family trips and group tours, FITs are the young and affluent travellers who prefer to plan their own unique experience. These FITs are technologically-savvy, looking for the newest or latest experience to add to their list.

China’s outbound group travel ban is still in place, hence tour groups are still unable to go ahead.

Recovery for tour groups is expected to be slow, as Chinese travellers are still wary of being with strangers for weeks at a time. Research has shown that travellers would be 71% less likely to use group tours, and instead travel in smaller group of 3-5, and only with their friends.

With many travellers looking to get closer to nature, and craving local experiences, brands and businesses can market themselves accordingly for maximum exposure.

FITs are willing to spend, and tend to spend across different sites instead of congregating at only the tourist spots. Their appetite for travel and the need to experience the world is huge.

Booking their next trip is a matter of a few clicks, as long as the destination has a robust online presence and booking portal in Mandarin (Simplified Chinese).

A guaranteed loss of opportunity comes when they get onto your website and realise that there’s no content in the Chinese language.

This is even more pertinent as the next big holiday in October is China’s coveted Golden Week - the one-week break celebrating their National Day.

Consumer spending is usually high during this period (Reuters, 2019), and China travellers are looking for places to go.

McKinsey - Traveler sentiment remain soft post-October

In a recent McKinsey study, it highlighted that travellers are already making travel plans up to October, and are already starting to make decisions or find inspiration for destinations.

By that time, there is a high chance that countries have opened up, and your brand or business can accept visitors. It is hence important for you to start preparing your brand for that eventuality. 

To have them stay engaged on your website, good and creatively translated content is required. This positive customer experience is much more likely to drive decision-making process into a booking, or at least keep your business on their consideration list.