It’s safe to say at this point that Covid-19 has changed travel forever. Even after countries get their infection rates low enough and their vaccination rates high enough, travel will be different as we go forward.
Businesses that want to target Chinese tourists need to keep these new travel trends in mind, while also keeping their brand in the forefront of the awareness of potential customers in China with effective digital marketing until international travel is on the menu again.
Latest travel trends in China to know
1 – Safety and hygiene first
Airlines, cruise lines, locations, hotels, restaurants and indoor performance venues will need to showcase their area’s fresh air and sun, their building’s windows and fan systems that allow constant air flow, their high tech hospital grade air conditioning systems that prevent the transfer of air between rooms, their disinfection, room cleaning and laundry procedures, their testing and vaccination requirements for staff and guests and more.
We can see this in action internationally when we take a look at the travel sector that was put in the spotlight in the early days of the pandemic and that has been one of the hardest hit by Covid-19. Starting in October 2020, cruise lines started to require negative Covid tests prior to boarding for all guests and staff and implemented a range of measures to prevent outbreaks.
As of April 2021, that has now been updated to a requirement for proof of vaccinations prior to boarding and sailing to destinations that also require vaccinations for travellers, like Iceland. Many ships now have Covid testing labs on board and require regular testing. Cruise lines have worked together with the CDC and other health agencies to enhance their health protections and are also advertising their updated health protocols clearly.
2 – Increased flexibility for booking, payments and refunds
In the earliest days of the Covid outbreak in China, to bring travel to a halt, the government encouraged travel businesses and platforms to give full refunds so that travellers could cancel their plans at the last minute without financial penalties. This went a long way to minimizing travel and the spread of Covid in China.
Now that infection rates are under control and domestic travel is underway, travel businesses realize that these highly flexible cancellation and rescheduling policies are still necessary. People are wary and also know that outbreaks and other factors can suddenly derail their plans.
The cruise industry, airlines and many hotel chains have already changed cancellation, rescheduling and refund policies to make them more flexible for worried travellers. Given that travel is highly discouraged during a pandemic, people are dealing with a range of circumstances that make travel and planning challenging and the travel industry itself faces huge obstacles, this is a necessary step.
3 – Livestreamed and virtual tours
China, where livestreaming was already a strong trend before Covid hit, was the first place to put it into wide use to get around pandemic travel restrictions. It became a strong format for influencers (KOLs), entertainment and a highly effective promotions and sales channel.
Livestreaming and video has also emerged all over the world as a way for people to experience vicarious travel while many borders are closed. There’s incredible variety, from free livecams of wildlife, the northern lights and zoos to paid livestreams of Shakespeare plays, themed tours in major tourist destinations, safaris and virtual tours of famous landmarks.
Some national tourism boards, such as Australia’s and Saint Lucia’s, have done a good job setting up dedicated websites and social media accounts with lots of virtual tours, stunning photos and educational videos to keep prospective and virtual tourists engaged and longing to see the real thing in person.
4 – Co-branding / Merch / Product lines
Co-branding is huge in China. This includes some very unlikely partnerships and products, such as a campaign with the UK’s National Gallery and KFC that had buckets and cups with world-famous impressionist works available at KFC’s thousands of restaurants in China. Don’t rule out a collaboration because it may seem odd to you as the boundaries are different in China.
If you prefer to colour within the lines, that’s also possible. It’s good if your online store ships to China, but to stay in touch with Chinese consumers, you really need outlets on Chinese e-commerce sites like Tmall and Taobao and to communicate with customers in ways that they’re familiar with, as the British Museum did by livestreaming on Fliggy.
Produce items that match your brand image and sell merchandise to customers who can’t visit you in person. Many hotel chains already sell fragrances, toiletries and bedding. Restaurants often make T-shirts, hats, mugs or water bottles. Beach destinations can sell designer beach towels. Keep sustainability in mind too.
5 – Duty free stores
In addition to maintaining a presence online, make sure your products are available in duty free stores in places like Hainan. The island has become a hot travel and shopping destination with sales at the island’s duty free stores soaring during Chinese New Year as Chinese shoppers, especially those looking for luxury items, flocked to the island. Sales during Golden Week doubled compared to 2019.
Essentially, Hainan and other places within China where domestic travel has grown enormously, have now taken the place of foreign destinations when it comes to luxury shopping travel. 90% of the growth in the luxury goods market was because of Chinese consumers, who were responsible for 35% of global luxury spending.
There’s also healthy demand in China for health food, organic products, plant-based foods, pet products and beauty-related items.
The 6th trend, that also links some of the trends above, is digitization (or digitalization). China’s digitization was already well ahead of many other places before the pandemic but it accelerated after Covid hit. This means that travel brands need to customize their branding for China, have their own China-based, Mandarin language official websites, and need to know China’s primary travel-related websites, platforms and apps. Establish a presence on them and advertise on them to reach future Chinese tourists and China’s foreign product consumers.
1 – Ctrip
Ctrip.com is one of the biggest Chinese tourism platforms and a one stop shop for accommodation reservations, transportation ticketing, package tours, corporate travel management and more. WIth global travel at a standstill, the site will now be focussed on domestic travel. Influencers, called key opinion leaders (KOLs) in China, frequently tag Ctrip in posts about booking tickets and other topics, adding to a brand’s exposure. A presence on the site is highly advised.
2 – Fliggy
Fliggy is the online travel platform of the Alibaba Group. As an online travel platform (OTP), as opposed to an online travel agent, it provides direct access between customers and airlines, hotels, railway operators and more. Brands and businesses can gather data directly from customers while selling their products and getting exposure for their brand. As mentioned before, The British Museum livestreamed on Fliggy to keep in touch with Chinese audiences and future travellers.
3 – Qunar
Qunar performs a unique function among Chinese tourism platforms. It’s China’s top travel-related search engine and travel information platform. They help consumers find and compare value and experiences for flights, hotels, packages and other travel services.
4 – Tuniu
Tuniu is an online leisure travel company in China that offers a large selection of package tours, including organized and self-guided tours, as well as travel-related services for leisure travellers. It covers over 140 countries worldwide and all the popular tourist attractions in China.
Content platforms for tourism-related businesses
WeChat’s dominance as the de facto operating system for daily life in China gives it a grip on young people who are interested in travelling. People also see lots of throwback images from trips taken by friends and family as well as public figures and travel bloggers. These wield a lot of influence. Location, brand and store mini programs on WeChat are also very popular and make finding your business or location easier for Chinese customers.
Weibo is similar to WeChat in terms of its level of travel-related influence. It even had a yearly conference where it handed out awards to top travel influencers. In 2019, Weibo noticed an increase in the amount and impact of travel content connected to culture, experiences, rural tourism, guesthouses, ecology and more.
Red / Xiaohongshu
Xiaohongshu or Red began as an app specializing in travel-related shopping recommendations where users posted about products and brands they discovered while travelling. Most couldn’t be bought in China at that time but things have evolved rapidly since then. The platform still features a lot of travel content and foreign brands.
China’s version of TripAdvisor, Mafengwo, is one of the most popular platforms among Chinese travellers. Tourists give reviews and ratings and share travel experiences, tips and photos.
This is the Chinese version of TikTok. Douyin and TikTok were both developed by Chinese tech company Bytedance and they operate in the same way, just for different audiences. In the West, it’s seen as an app for kids and teens; in China, its users and audience are older with many in their mid-20s.
Payment platforms for tourism-related businesses
WeChat Pay is one of the most used payment systems in China so installing a WeChat Pay system online would be a strong move for catering to Chinese tourists.
When international travel resumes in some form, tax refund mini programs on WeChat are also used frequently when Chinese people travel so if you provide one that immediately administers these refunds to your Chinese customers, that would be a big hit.
Alipay is another widely used digital payment system in China. It was originally developed by Alibaba to make paying for purchases on its platforms safer and easier but it has grown much bigger than that. Giving Chinese customers the option of using this to pay for purchases overseas and locally makes their life much easier.
Other key players in the Chinese tourism industry
Similar to Mafengwo and Red, without the shopping focus, Qyer.com enables travel enthusiasts to write notes, give each other tips and share their experiences. It provides information about travel destinations, transportation and accommodation. It finances itself through commissions for airline and hotel bookings.
Airbnb’s Weibo hashtag #爱彼迎故事# (The Story of Airbnb) and #遇到, 想不到# (Meet the Unexpected) are popular among many travel KOLs. Appealing photos and interesting stories in social media posts have attracted a lot of attention for Airbnb. At the moment, domestically, Airbnb in China is focussing on local travel experiences.
Overseas travel isn’t going to be on the cards for most Chinese travellers for quite a while. Even once borders reopen, mindsets, perceptions of safety and views of health policies in foreign countries have changed and it will take time for Chinese outbound travel, particularly travel outside of Asia, to recover.
In the meantime, your marketing strategy should include getting onto Chinese tourism platforms to remind them of who you are, what you offer and allow them to have livestreamed and virtual experiences that are compelling and that only your brand can offer.
For more China market insights, download our FREE 690+ page Mega Guide: China E-commerce and Digital Marketing, Q3 2021 or our 18-page survey report Post-COVID-19 China: The Digital Lifestyles and Travel Plans of Chinese Consumers. Chozan is your partner in bringing your brand into the domestic Chinese market.