Despite the obstacles, Ma and her middle-class peers are expected to travel in growing numbers, with flights set to increase further early next year, with visa backlogs not forecast to extend into 2024.
In the post-pandemic era, Chinese travellers are seen to prefer travelling in small groups to countries near or far, well known or otherwise, for solo sightseeing and adventure on a range of budgets – despite economic issues at home – tourism industry veterans said.
“They prioritise personalised travel services catering to specific interests and passions, such as surfing, skiing and handicrafts, and are happy to go on less trodden paths to find these,” said Zhang Chen, vice-president of Chinese travel platform Fliggy.
At the high end, tours from China to Europe via private jet are rebounding after a 25 per cent slump due to the coronavirus and economic slowdowns in China, said Dennis Lau, consultancy services director with Hong Kong-based aviation services firm Asian Sky Group.
Chinese budget travellers, meanwhile, are making their way around East Asia to enjoy cheap flights and quick visa approvals.
Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand and Japan were the top four choices in Asia in 2023, outside mainland China, according to Chinese travellers surveyed by travel technology platform Dragon Trail International.
Outbound tourists from China numbered 40.3 million in the first half of 2023, according to market research firm Statista, compared to 155 million in all of 2019.
But data from travel analytics firm ForwardKeys showed that in the first three quarters of the year, bookings for solo, double and family travel originating in China all rose compared to 2019. The share of bookings by larger groups, though, fell by 21.8 per cent.
Travellers in contact with Fliggy this year have visited Argentina, Kenya, the Maldives, and French Polynesia, seeking snorkelling and helicopter sightseeing tours.
“We see the economic downturn … could lead to changes in consumer travel behaviour in that travellers are placing greater importance on the value and quality of their trips,” ForwardKeys market analyst Nancy Dai said.
Chinese visitors to Europe fell by 59 per cent in the first nine months of the year compared to 2019, ForwardKeys said.
“I’ve been in France for five years and I used to hear Chinese everywhere around the Eiffel Tower during the summer holidays or golden week,” said Zhao Xinhe, an employee of a Paris-based wine vendor.
“Now, many of the Asian faces I see are all speaking Japanese or Korean.”
Outbound Chinese tourism is recovering this year “much more slowly” than domestic travel due to visa backlogs and a lack of international flights, market analysis firm fDi Intelligence said in September
Foreign airlines are avoiding Russian airspace, adding three hours to flight times between China and Europe, Lau said.
“The resumption of China routes by European carriers has been limited, with these airlines preferring to deploy capacity into other markets, given the complications of the airspace restrictions,” he said.
Foreign airlines, Lau added, find it “unfeasible” to link second-tier cities in China to Europe, channelling passengers instead to traditional hub-city routes such as between Beijing and London or Shanghai and Frankfurt, with airport connections then needed to reach smaller cities.
Yet many Chinese travellers still hope to travel to Europe, with pent-up demand “that is only now coming to the market with the reopening of group travel”, said John Grant, a senior analyst with the British aviation intelligence firm OAG.
International routes connecting with China are due to rise from 459 in early 2023 to 671 by the first quarter of 2024, according to OAG.
Fliggy’s data showed transactions for international “tourism services” rose nine times during the extended eight-day golden week holiday, which included the Mid-Autumn Festival at the end of September, compared to the same period four years ago.
With the ease of getting a visa a top concern among Chinese travellers, according to Dai, European countries are working through a post-pandemic backlog of applications from Chinese travellers that may still take months to clear, analysts said.
The Global Times reported that appointments for visas to travel to some of the 27 Schengen countries in Europe, if processed in China, are booked until the end of the year.
“Because of the pandemic policies of the last three years, many people have not been able to apply for tourist visas, so the result is now all the demand piled up into this year,” said Zhang Yu, who works for the Paris office of the Beijing-based Visa Agency.
A shortening of waiting times for Europe next year would coincide with the scheduled expiration of Thailand’s visa-free policy for Chinese nationals at the end of February.
China was Thailand’s biggest source of tourists before 2020, racking up 11 million arrivals in 2019.
Chinese travellers had already begun shifting towards independent and adventure travel before Covid-19, said Xu Lin, founder of a boutique travel advisory in China.
But economic and political pressures are keeping the lid on some travel plans, she added.
“We’re experiencing the beginning of a big economic crisis,” Xu said. “People have less money and there are safety issues, so if they think that in some destinations they’re not welcome, they won’t go there.”
Eventually travel operators in China might offer enough “premium” travel services, such as high-end hotels, meaning tourists do not not travel overseas, she said.
“This market is waiting for a lot of new products to arrive, but [now] is not the best economic momentum,” Xu said.