"At first, we planned to travel abroad. When I found prices for all the overseas travel packages had tripled during the Spring Festival, we decided to shift to domestic travel," said Zhang.
Several years ago, outbound tours were still an exclusive way of leisure for the better-off. In the 1990s, most Chinese who traveled abroad were people who earned high salaries working for foreign companies in China or retirees on an once-in-a-lifetime trip. With an increase in disposable incomes, more families can afford an overseas vacation.
Statistics show that from 2002 to 2011, the number of outbound trips made by Chinese tourists soared from 16.6 million to 70.3 million, experiencing a 323-percent increase. In 2012, China topped the list in overseas tourism consumption, spending a total of $91 billion. Dai Bin, Director of CTA, estimates that domestic and overseas trips hit 3 billion and 80 million respectively in 2012. By 2020, the number of outbound trips is expected to exceed 100 million.
Such an explosive expansion of China's tourism industry is primarily due to the country's economic growth in the past decade. Generally, when a country's per-capita GDP reaches $3,000, a surge in tourists heading for neighboring countries occurs; when the figure reaches $5,000, more intercontinental tours take place. China's per-capita GDP in 2011 stood at $5,432.
When Chinese people were first exposed to outbound travel, they were easily satisfied with European tour packages, which encompassed a dozen countries, said Zou Xiang, a tour guide from Beijing UTour International Travel Service Co. Ltd.
As more and more countries begin to issue visas for individual Chinese tourists, independent travelers will continue to erode the market share of package tours. A survey by the CTA showed 37.2 percent of outbound tourists chose to travel on their own versus a packaged tour during this Spring Festival. Individual travelers made up 70-80 percent of tourists in the United States and Europe in 2012 because package tours have begun to lose their appeal in those markets.
"For independent travelers, travel agencies only need to help them rent cars, get an international driving permit and insurance," said Zou.
As outbound travel has become quite common even among ordinary folk, Chinese tourists, as a whole, have begun to shift their approach to travel from snapping up luxury goods to just relaxing and enjoying the holidays.
"Tourists from metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou show a weaker willingness to shop overseas, for frequent overseas travel has made their enthusiasm for shopping wear off," Sun explained. "For them, overseas travel has evolved from a symbol of social status to a way of life."
However, there is no denying that Chinese tourists, who consume 25 percent of the world's luxury goods every year, are still a major growth source for luxury brands, with Chinese consumers continuing to splurge on fashion in Paris and watches in Switzerland.
"Today, tourists from second-tier cities have gradually become the main force in overseas shopping," said Sun.
Prospects for the high-end market are promising too. Some travel agencies have begun to design shopping routes targeting high-end consumers, like the U.S. east coast shopping tour organized by Beijing UTour International Travel Service Co. Ltd. "It's not unusual to see Chinese tourists splash out in Woodbury Common Premium Outlets, one of the largest contiguous outlet centers in the world," said Zou.
Children have also begun to join the ranks of outbound traveling class during the holidays, with more diversified tour programs catering to parents and their children.
For Beijing resident Liu Guohai, a trip overseas with his teenage son is the perfect holiday getaway.
"Traveling abroad is a good chance for my son to relax. At the same time, an exotic experience can broaden his horizons."
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