Author and TravelAge West contributor Gary Bowerman // © 2014 Gary Bowerman
Feature image (above): Shanghai will soon be home to China’s tallest building, The Shanghai Tower. // © 2014 Thinkstock
The rapidly growing outbound Chinese travel market is reshaping tourism on a global basis. That’s the premise explored in “The New Chinese Traveler: Business Opportunities from the Chinese Travel Revolution,” a new book by longtime Asia tourism veteran and TravelAge West contributor Gary Bowerman.
Bowerman spoke with TravelAge West about how some of that Chinese-driven change has made it easier for U.S. travelers to explore China itself, and in doing so, continues to create new sales opportunities for travel agents.
Is it becoming easier for U.S. travelers to visit China?
Yes. It is getting easier to fly nonstop from the U.S. to China and vice versa, and more gateways are opening up for business and leisure travelers beyond the primary cities of Beijing and Shanghai. The increasing demand for air tickets between the two countries, particularly from China to the U.S., means the four big Chinese airlines — Air China, China Southern, China Eastern and Hainan Airlines — will continue to launch new routes to and from different Chinese cities. U.S. airlines are also seeking to expand their China route networks.
Which U.S. gateways are getting more air service to China?
Air China now flies to China from Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston. American Airlines launched a Dallas/Fort Worth-Shanghai service and has applied to open the first non-stop connection between Dallas/Fort Worth and Beijing. China Southern Airlines flies between New York and the southern city of Guangzhou, while United Airlines flies to Chengdu in central China.
Hawaii, which is rapidly growing in popularity with Chinese tourists, is likely to see more new routes. Expect this trend to continue, providing greater connectivity for both U.S. and Chinese travelers.
What sort of new developments in China should U.S. travel agents be aware of when working with their clients on a potential trip?
Huge investment in tourism infrastructure, including the high-speed rail network, is a major driver of the growth in Chinese domestic travel, and can also benefit U.S. visitors. Enhanced access between major cities makes rail travel a more reliable, punctual option than internal flights — which, though frequent, are subject to relentless delays. Beijing to Shanghai, for example, takes less than five hours by train, and new rail stations are modern, easy to use and offer good facilities. They are also much closer to downtown than city airports.
Are there other tourism infrastructure developments U.S. travel agents should know about?
Two new developments in Shanghai are worth watching next year. The Shanghai Tower — China’s tallest building at 2,073 feet high — will feature a sky-high observation platform. And for families, the much-anticipated Shanghai Disney Resort, which promises the usual blend of Magic Kingdom entertainment plus China-themed attractions, will also open.
China has not been considered a winter sports destination, but Changbaishan National Nature Reserve — which offers excellent skiing facilities, beautiful alpine scenery and hotels by Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Sheraton Hotels & Resorts and Westin Hotels & Resorts — has raised its profile.
What about tour operators?
Tour companies are maturing. WildChina has offered high-quality tours to lesser-known parts of China for several years, but younger tour providers such as Bespoke Travel Company and Untour Shanghai offer unique activities from an insider perspective.
You discussed the Macao-style "integrated resort" in your book and how that approach is shaping resort development in China and elsewhere in the world. Tell us about that.
Although Las Vegas set the benchmark for casino-based tourism and entertainment long before any other destination, Macao and Singapore, two of Asia’s smallest destinations, have reframed the model in a 21st-century Asian context — with considerable investment from Vegas-based operators such as Wynn Resorts Limited and Las Vegas Sands Corp.
Both Macao and Singapore have championed the integrated resort concept, which combines high-end restaurants, plentiful branded retail, theaters, sports arenas, theme parks, museums, convention centers and vast casinos that generate eye-popping revenues. Given the geographical spread of Chinese outbound travel, gaming-based leisure travel is becoming a powerful new factor in tourism development in other parts of the world.
Where is the integrated resort model taking hold outside of China?
Sri Lanka is building integrated resorts in Colombo; a giant casino resort is under construction in the Bahamas; and ambitious plans are on the table in Sydney and Cairns in Australia. The integrated Genting Highlands Resort in Malaysia will feature the first theme park by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
In addition, Korea’s Jeju Island is building casino resorts; Bermuda is working on similar plans; the Philippines has embraced the concept; and the Japanese government will decide later this year whether to approve casino resorts ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. China is expected to be a primary source of visitors for each of these developments.
How else is the rapid growth in the outbound Chinese market affecting infrastructure and tourism development in other parts of the world?
China is having a transformative impact on the way the global tourism industry operates, finances and promotes itself. Significant growth in inbound arrivals from China is being reported in most destinations around the world. In the U.S., almost one million Chinese visitors arrived in the first six months of 2014, up 23 percent over the same period in 2013.
Is the Chinese travel market evolving as it grows? Is group travel still the mainstay?
The demography of Chinese tourism is diversifying rapidly, with independent FIT travel growing at a fast pace alongside the still solid group tour market. Chinese FIT travelers tend to be young and well-educated with a good grasp of English and a willingness to spend big on their travels. They are increasingly adventurous in seeking out new experiences and activities in addition to visiting signature tourism sights and brand shopping.
The growth of Chinese outbound travel niches is also becoming evident, particularly backpacking, cruising, winter sports, weddings and honeymoons, gourmet and wine tours and self-drive vacations. And while the majority of outbound travel is condensed into the two Golden Week national public holidays — Spring Festival in late January/February and China National Day in the first week of October — younger Chinese vacationers are now traveling year round.