Free-style Travel

Statistics show how things have changed with tourism in China. With the younger generation supporting free-style travel, there is a new thirst for engaging with real culture.

One of the strongest drivers of economic growth isn’t factories or financial services or internet startups, it’s what we do when we’re not working. For the past seven years, the tourism sector has outperformed the overall economy each year, contributing as much as $7.6 trillion in 2016, including the wider impact on the economy, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. And China is at the very center of this trend.

Gone are the days of traveling in matching baseball caps (even t-shirts) and following a flag-wielding travel guide at breakneck speeds. During the last “Golden Week” (seven-day-long national holiday), about 6 million people arrived at 1,155 cities in 88 countries and regions, according to the National Tourism Administration. They were filling hotels, shopping malls, restaurants and cruise ships, overwhelming every tourist attraction, airport and train station. However, less than one sixth of them were joined by group tours.

Data shows that in 2017, consumer expenditure dropped over 40 percent in inbound travel and 37 percent in outbound travel compared to 2016.

The so-called “free-style travel” or “self-guided tour” (Zi You Xing) is quietly yet aggressively replacing the traditional group tour, re-constructing and remodeling the whole industry. With more and more disposable income in their hands, more citizens are becoming eager to spend on tourism, but instead of blindly following what the travel agencies offer, now they are conducting their own research and traveling the way they like. May it be sitting in Taipei’s most famous bookstore for one night, or renting a motorbike in the countryside, more people want to venture outside of the norm.

The popularity of the internet and smart phones ensure this evolution. Except for online travel agencies like Ctrip and Ma Feng Wo, more creative travel apps are determined to make self-guided travel available for everyone. If language barriers are removed by a translating app; if a customized itinerary is just a few clicks away, most Chinese, at least the young and rebellious ones, won’t want to be driven to five cities in four days like a flock of sheep.

An app called “San Mao You” is designed for Chinese people to better understand local culture, history and background information of a specific location based on your current location at that time. You can open it and hear everything about the place you are visiting. It’s like having a personal tour guide in your pocket. Ctrip and Baidu launched an AI pocket translator plus Wi-Fi hotspot which is working in more than 80 countries and regions. Overseas car renting app Huang Bao Che (皇包车) has expanded to over 1,600 cities in 90 countries and regions and provided driving and tour guide services via 100,000 overseas Chinese.

The Chinese are notorious for overseas shopping. But instead of just buy, buy, buy, it seems that now they tend to know better what’s worth spending and what’s not. Data shows that in 2017, consumer expenditure dropped over 40 percent in inbound travel and 37 percent in outbound travel compared to 2016. They also know exactly where to shop, thanks to the internet.

It’s the younger generation acting as the main supporters of free-style. They speak better English and they dislike following what others do. They could go to a country for a specific food or sport or comic character. According to data released by Ctrip, in 2016, people who traveled abroad aged from 30 to 40 years old constituted half of the total number.

Beishi was born in 1988. In 2014, he quit his job and began to travel around the world on a budget. Soon after he became an online celebrity of travel. He noticed that merely two years ago, when he posted photos about Cuba and Argentina, very few people responded. Now, more people have been there. “My fans pay more attention to novel and unusual trips. They want to go somewhere the mainstream and travel groups won’t reach, such as Afghanistan, Iran and Africa. They are eager to understand local culture and experience real life.” Beishi commented.

It’s certain that Chinese travel has evolved, from tasteless shopping and endless selfies to gradually understanding the deeper meaning of travel and the start of a new curiosity about other cultures and history. They are led by a bunch of young pioneers who go out and write educational articles for their followers. Nowadays, the places you visit is the new way to show off wealth.