There has been a huge focus on China’s valuable outbound market, but what about its often overlooked inbound market?

1 January, 2020

There has been a huge imbalance in China’s outbound and inbound markets, a situation that has meant many western airlines have struggled to make air connections work outside of the largest of mainland Chinese cities. That has seen Chinese airlines become key partners as airlines seek valuable connecting feed to support the origin and destination flows.

But there is a growing inbound market, albeit Beijing and Shanghai continue to dominate, according to the latest annual insight from The China Guide, which has organised custom private tours in China last year for thousands of travellers from the United States of America, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, and beyond.

Its latest report on its customers offer some key insights into Western traveller preferences when it comes to planning a visit to China. In 2019, 90% of its travellers included Beijing either as their sole destination or as one stop of their multi-city tours.

Beijing is generally considered the main gateway to China, both geographically and culturally, and is home to two of the best-known attractions that the country has to offer: the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. To this figure, it largely contributed the many layover/transit passengers or business travellers who usually take one or two days off to do some sightseeing. Its statistics show that in 2019 travellers spent an average of 2.3 days exploring Beijing.

Shanghai, another major city and the financial capital of the country, attracted around a quarter of its travellers. Like Beijing, Shanghai also attracted a large number of layover/transit passengers and business travellers, many of the latter enjoying some down time while on corporate visits. The average time its clients spent in Shanghai in 2019 was slightly shorter than the capital at 2.1 days.

Unsurprisingly, Xi'an, home to the world-famous Terracotta Army, ranked third on the list of most popular destinations, with 23% of travellers visiting in 2019, spending 1.9 days in the city this year. Following behind, the lesser-known Guilin/Yangshuo, Chengdu, Suzhou, Zhangjiajie, Hangzhou, Pingyao, and Luoyang completed the ten most popular destinations among the company’s travellers to China.

Aside from these destinations, it highlights Yunnan, Datong, and Huangshan as also attracting a good number of travellers in 2019, while Tibet, which requires more time and a bigger budget because of its remote location and difficult access, did not receive many clients despite being frequently inquired by travellers.

CHART - Visitor arrivals into China have been fairly stagnant over the past decade with a mix of negative and positive year-on-year performancesSource: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and China National Tourism Administration

While business travellers tended to remain their domiciled city, leisure travellers were more open to visiting two or more cities, including some quite diverse cities beyond the ‘Golden Triangle of China’ markets of Beijing, Shanghai and Xi'an.

Unsurprisingly, different combinations of Beijing, Xi'an, and Shanghai were the three most popular itineraries in 2019. The Beijing-Xi'an-Shanghai tour was the most popular selected by 15.3% of the multi-city travellers last year, and taking clients an average of 8.6 days to complete.

Guilin/Yangshuo, Chengdu, Zhangjiajie, Hangzhou, and Luoyang were also frequently picked by multi-city travellers in 2019. The most popular combinations included Beijing-Xi'an-Shanghai-Guilin/Yangshuo, Beijing-Xi’an-Shanghai-Chengdu, Beijing-Xi’an-Shanghai-Zhangjiajie, Beijing-Xi'an-Luoyang, Beijing-Shanghai-Hangzhou, and Beijing-Guilin/Yangshuo.

In addition to destinations, the research provides some insights into booking and seasonality habits. It shows a trend that the longer a trip was, the longer in advance travellers booked their trips, quite standard given longer tours require more planning and preparation time.

Based on its data, most people booked a 1 to 3-day tour an average of 28 days in advance; a 4 to 6-day tour an average of 53 days in advance; a 7 to 10-day tour an average of 62 days in advance; and a tour of more than 10 days an average of 85 days in advance.

Its data also shows that around two thirds of travellers to China (65%) visited in March, April, May, September, October or November when the weather is generally milder. Due to the cold weather and the holiday season, December, January, and February saw the lowest number of visitors, with only 7% of travellers choosing these three months to visit China.

So what is The China Guide’s key guidance for booking travel to China? “Booking a tour early means having more options when selecting accommodation, guides, cars, and other services, and can also help save money since prices in China tend to go up often,” it explains.