Second and third-tier cities catching up as key outbound tourism markets
Jiang Jing, a 30-year-old from Weinan, a fourth-tier city in Shaanxi province, went to her local city hall early in September to apply for a passport as she planned a trip to The Maldives with her husband the following month.
She was surprised to see so many people doing the same.
“I thought overseas travel was still rare for residents of my city, but I was completely wrong,“ she said.
The World Tourism Cities Federation, a nonprofit, nongovernmental international organization organized voluntarily by tourist cities around the globe, said in a report last month that more than 100 million Chinese traveled overseas last year.
It concluded the country’s small cities had huge potential for outbound tourism, although big cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, are still the largest sources of outbound tourism revenue at present.
Particularly, it identified residents of Tianjin, and Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Liaoning, Hubei and Sichuan provinces as having the strongest demand.
Dai Yu, marketing director of China’s largest online travel agency Ctrip, said although Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are still the top three tourist cities in 2014, the cities of Tianjin, Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, and Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, experienced the biggest growths.
“Second and third-tier cities are definitely catching up with the big cities in terms of outbound tourism traffic,” said Dai.
“Smaller cities grew 100 percent more than the bigger ones on average.”
Ctrip bookings for overseas travel products from small city residents, meanwhile, increased a thumping 300 percent.
The National Day holiday period is considered peak season for outbound tourism.
A government official from the entry and exit administration in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, surnamed Zhao, said daily passport applications ran at an average of 400 in September, up from 250 in August.
To cope with the rise in numbers, new passports were processed in 10 days rather than 15, Zhao said.
Jiangxi authorities processed 477,000 passports in the first eight months of 2015, according to the administration.
Neighboring countries Japan, South Korea and Thailand remained the most popular destinations for short trips, while the latter two were also the top outbound destinations for residents of Jiangxi in 2014.
The reason given by travelers from small cities for sticking to nearby countries remains the tiring need to transfer through big cities, to go further afield.
The manager of a local travel agency in Nanchang said some local travel agencies and airlines are already cooperating on the running of more charter flights from there to other nearby destinations, including Taiwan.
Cheng Qian, the manager of Huaxia Travel Agency’s business department in Sanmenxia, Henan province, said five-to-six-day short-haul outbound tourism products are its best-sellers during the holiday.
Its outbound packages departing over the National Day holiday had already sold out by early September, Cheng said.
Jiang Yiyi, director of international tourism development at the China Tourism Academy, said that the arrival of the high-speed railway network has made traveling by train a far more popular way for residents from small cities, especially in central and western China, to reach their outward destination airports.
“The network has shortened the distance from inland cities to port cities, for instance,” said Jiang.
The setting up of consulates by some countries in smaller cities has also made it more convenient for local residents to gain travel visas.
Italy, for instance, established a visa center in early 2015 at its consulate in Chongqing, a major city in southwest China, to serve residents from there and nearby provinces, such as Sichuan, Yunnan and Shaanxi.
Jiang said for many Chinese people, regular international travel has become a norm, more than a treat.
“Outbound tourism is just another daily consumption for some Chinese residents, no matter whether they live in big cities or small ones,” she said.
Cheng Weimin, general manager of Jiangxi Overseas Tourist Corporation, a State-owned travel agency in the province, however, says the biggest hurdle still existing for residents of smaller cities traveling abroad is the relatively narrow capability of local travel agencies.
Many still have to cooperate with larger agencies in bigger cities as they can only offer relatively few overseas destinations, especially in Europe and the US, said Cheng.
The added effort needed to travel to hub cities, and then onto faraway destinations, is also a major consideration for China’s growing international travelers.
“We gave up on my original plan to go to the United States this year,” said Zhang Yun, a 28-year old female doctor living in Lanzhou, Gansu province, who was planning to travel with her elderly parents,“ as there were no direct flights from the city to the US.
“The cost was too much for that added travel, so we decided to go to Thailand instead.”
Jiang Yiyi, from China Tourism Academy, remains confident, however, more direct international routes will be introduced in coming years, as domestic and foreign airlines and online travel agencies pay closer attention to the small-city market.
Yu Dunde, CEO of Tuniu.com, a listed online travel agency, said departures from second-tier cities are already contributing strongly to its total bookings and expects more second and third-tier cities to be included in its future offerings.