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Out From Behind The Glass: China’s Huge Number of Travelers Looking to Explore Outdoors, Other Cultures

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China is the world’s largest outbound travel market with 166 million trips abroad and 277 billion USD spent in 2018 alone.
Alejandro Luengo // Unsplash

Anyone who’s paid attention to reports about travel at all in the past couple of years has no doubt come across the staggering numbers of Chinese travelers. Perhaps you are an observer boggled by the statistic that China is the world’s largest outbound travel market with 166 million trips abroad in 2018. Maybe you are an inbound operator hoping to cash in on the international spend of Chinese travelers that topped 277 billion USD in 2018 and is holding steady today. You might consider yourself to be climate conscious and feel it’s alarming for so many people to participate in so much CO2-emitting travel, especially when negative reports of unwanted tourism and bad behavior abound. In any case, the numbers by themselves can be hard to fathom. What is clear, however, is that the Chinese have become the world’s most prolific traveling population, and the world had better get used to it.

Post-WWII America had a booming economy bolstered in part by a transition from rural agriculture to urban industrialization. Americans with money and a thirst to know the world also had increased leisure time. International travel became a natural outlet to fulfill a sense of curiosity and to connect with people and cultures that had seemed just decades before so distant. Fast forward to 2020 and we find a very similar set of circumstances in China. It’s only been 13 years since the Chinese government began to permit its citizens to travel beyond Asia to North America, and no international tourist travel was permitted prior to 1995. Armed with new found freedom, mobile payment options in hand and a desire to connect with the world beyond its restrictive borders, it’s no wonder Chinese citizens are taking up travel as a means of fulfillment.

China’s population is 1.4 billion people strong, and currently only 9% of that number holds a passport. As Chinese travelers tire of package tours and mass vacations, more and more seasoned and active Chinese are finding adventure travel to help them connect with places, and outdoor activities in those places. The China Adventure Tourism Market Study, 2019 from Bannikin Tourism and Travel puts the Chinese adventure market at 16.3% of the total outbound Chinese market, spending roughly 8.2B USD per year. Comprised largely of millennials born in the 80’s and 90’s, these travelers are increasingly interested in nature, trekking and camping, and are keen to travel independently or in small groups.

The broad Chinese travel market, historically focused on sightseeing and leisure, is trending more and more towards adventure and participation. Most Chinese travelers come from China’s vast urban centers, and many are relatively inexperienced in the outdoors, preferring soft and entry-level adventure activities to extreme or technical sports. On his third trip abroad, while preparing to float Alaska’s Matanuska River, TT from China’s Southern province of Guizhou told me, “I’ve been to Paris, and I’ve been to Las Vegas, but this is the first time I’ve ever been out from behind the glass window of a bus or car.”  The high mountains, proximity to wildlife, and lack of buildings was intimidating to TT, but his experience in the wild was exhilarating. “I want to do it again,” he told me after getting soaked in the icy water. 

New-found freedoms and a desire to connect with the world beyond its borders are fueling China’s travel market. Mika Baumeister//Unsplash

It seems that getting out behind the glass is a growing trend throughout the Chinese market.  Max Wang is the founder of Beijing’s Triune Expeditions Club and designer of ultra-high-end expeditionary itineraries for Chinese travelers to some of the worlds most difficult to access places, such as the desert in North Africa, or Alaska’s Iditarod Trail. “The increasing sense of participation has been the hallmark of the Chinese adventure travel market recently, Wang says, “People have gone from merely joining a[n] expedition ship to the Antarctic or Arctic to participating in a much wider range of activities such as tracking snow leopards in northern India or joining the Golden Eagle Festival at western Mongolia.”

ITB China, a B2B marketplace, recently polled participant agents to study trends in the Chinese adventure travel market. According to Lydia Li of ITB China, “Safety is the most important concern for adventure travelers. In our recent report, the three most important aspects Chinese travelers care for in adventure travel are safety, [participating in] local activities, and [natural] scenery.” 

It could be that this strong concern for safety is related to the way adventure travel comes across in the Chinese language. The word most commonly used for Adventure Travel is composed of 4 characters. 探险旅游 (pronounced: tan xian lü you). The English translation is adventure, but a literal translation of the word might be ‘to explore or spy out places that are difficult to access’. It is closely related to the word 冒险 (maoxian) which can also mean ‘adventure’ but literally means to ‘to risk.’ The second two characters 旅游 (lü you), or travel, are composed of the characters that mean “traveler” and ‘a part of a river’ respectively. 

Chinese milennials are increasingly keen to travel for trekking, camping and nature. Wesley Verhoeve // DeathtoStock

Such words and their connotations bring about images of danger and risk that often compel the Chinese traveler to be worried about safety, or to stay away from such activities and opt instead for a large-group “behind the glass” trip. But as adventure travel becomes more commonplace, better understood, and accessible, greater numbers of Chinese are seeking trips to places that are difficult to access.

Chinese, like the rest of the world’s citizens, are intensely proud of their cultural heritage which boasts a 5,000-year-old writing system and inventions such as paper and gunpowder, not to mention their recent powerful economy and excellence in many industries. However, during the period from 1949 to 1978, China took a reclusive stance, largely isolated from the rest of the world. When China finally began to emerge from its self-imposed seclusion, the rest of the global community was in the process of deciding how to share the geography and resources in Antarctica. China made a concerted push not only to be part of the discussion, but to be a leader in Antarctic research, exploration, and scientific contribution.

According to Jonathan Harrington of Troy University, China’s activities in Antarctica have “on balance had a positive effect on Antarctic research and governance…making unique contributions in the areas of astronomy, climate change, and fisheries management.”   In recent years, China’s scientific community has been as active in Antarctica as any other country,  having completed building 4 research stations, with a 5th to be completed in 2022  and led many international studies, contributions that have imbued Chinese citizens with a renewed sense of pride and nationalistic fervor. In some ways, Antarctica research has become China’s equivalent to a moon landing, and the place itself has become a highly desired destination for Chinese adventure travelers. Several polar cruise adventure companies have dedicated entire ships and excursions to their Chinese guests, complete with Chinese speaking staff and Chinese cuisine, in order to facilitate increased demand. 

China is undeniably on the travel and adventure travel scene, and numbers relating to Chinese travelers will continue to be impressive, if not overwhelming. As the market matures, adventure travel will likely continue to grow and Chinese adventure travelers – like their adventure traveler counterparts from around the globe – will inevitably play a formative role in shaping the future of global travel.

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