In 2022, when the world reopened for travel after the crash brought on by Covid-19, while many countries saw an unprecedented rise in travel thanks to the pent-up demand that the lockdowns had generated, one country was missing from action as China, which had been the largest outbound travel market in the world in 2019 remained closed to inbound and outbound tourism.
Thus, all eyes were on China when finally in 2023, China reopened its borders and allowed both inbound and outbound tourism. But so far China has failed to deliver the boom that most destinations had been hoping for, after all their own recoveries would never be complete without the return of Chinese tourists.
But as aviation data aggregator and consultancy firm OAG says a year after reopening, in the first quarter of the current year, the international capacity is still 30 pc below 2019.
OAG says that from 2010 to 2019, China had grown at an astounding pace, as only 56 million air passengers had travelled to or from China in 2010, but in 2019, this number had grown almost three-fold to 147 million. And to promise further, almost unlimited growth, new passports were being issued at a frenetic pace of 10 million a year, opening up the market further. Chinese were not only the largest group of overseas travellers in 2019, but they were also the biggest spender on overseas tourism, with a total expenditure of USD 254 billion in 2019.
Setting sights high
Now a year after revival of the Chinese markets, many destinations have set very ambitious targets, clearly banking on a much stronger growth in outbound travel from China in 2024 than what has been witnessed so far, but still below the 2019 peak.
According to OAG, Thailand, which had received 11 million Chinese visitors in 2019, saw about 3.5 million Chinese visiting the country last year. For this year, Tourism Authority of Thailand has set a target of 8.2 million Chinese tourists, a rise of 134 pc, similarly Indonesia which had received 2.07 million visitors from China in 2019 saw only 570,000 in 2023, yet this year Indonesia estimates that it will reach the 2019 arrival figure again in 2024, a growth of 263 pc in a year.
OAG says that having set the high targets, the South East Asian destinations would need to up their ante in order to achieve them as there is intense competition amongst destinations for Chinese visitors. This is also partly due to the fact several new destinations have entered the fray in the post-pandemic era. For instance, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had been essentially a business destination for the Chinese upto 2019, but now the Kingdom is actively courting tourists from all over the world, including China.
As part of its Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has set a target of 5 million Chinese tourists by 2030, up from barely 100,000 in 2023. OAG says that since the flight times are almost similar between Shanghai and Riyadh and Shanghai and Sydney, Australia may have real competition on its hands.
OAG adds that tourism authorities will have to prioritise tourism marketing plans and work with supply partners to offer the right product at a cost-effective price. Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in targeting Chinese travelers through joint marketing campaigns with local travel giants. Integration with tour operators may facilitate the distribution of new destinations, and whilst capacity needs to build to meet these ambitious targets, it is clear that this will be an area of future high growth.
Chinese carriers dominate revival
OAG says that in the post-pandemic era, even though the total capacity is still below 2019 levels, the Chinese have raced to take up additional marketshares as foreign airlines still dilly-dally. It says that the share of international capacity to and from China operated by Chinese carriers has risen to 63 pc in January 2024, higher than both the 47 pc in January 2023 and 53 pc in January 2019.
It adds that for China’s Top 10 outbound markets, every country has seen an increase in the share of capacity operated by Chinese-domiciled carriers. The major three airlines, China Southern, China Eastern and Air China, have increased their international share from 60 pc in 2019 to 64 pc today. They face the challenge of meeting both increasing domestic and international capacity demands.