Do not underestimate the Chinese traveler.
Dr. Wolfgang Arlt, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), predicted the massive movement of international outbound Chinese tourists long before most experts. Find out why and get his advice on catering to this growing — and lucrative — market.
At what point did you realize the Chinese outbound market was going to be so significant?
In 1999, I was at the Berlin Fair and I said, “The Chinese are coming and we’ve better be prepared.” Everyone agreed that I was mad. At that time, the head of a national tourism board practically kicked me out of her office and said,”Don’t waste my time with this crap.”
Why did you see it coming before so many others?
I grew up in West Berlin, so my whole city was divided. When the East Germans were demonstrating, they were not saying, “we want democracy.” They were saying, reisefreiheit or, “freedom to travel.” I think that helped me understand how powerful this wish was to see the world. It was rather clear that, for the Chinese, once they got the money, the visa and the passport, they would want to travel a lot. But if you told me in 1999 that today, we would be talking about 160 million border crossings, I would not have thought that, ever. At that time we were below 10 million, and in 15 years, it has been more than ten-fold the development. I can’t claim that I would have given that kind of forecast.
How has technology impacted Chinese travel behavior?
In the 1990s, when the Chinese were first arriving in Europe, they had almost no idea what to expect. They had never seen a proper map. Thanks to technology, today Chinese travelers spend hours researching on the Internet, using forums, blogs, pictures, and maps.
Now, we see funny things happening. We have something called “co-presence.” They take a photo of the menu and upload it to share with their friends back in Shanghai and ask, “What should I order?” The Chinese always see themselves as part of a group, and they can now bring their friends with them, even though they are not physically there.
Dr. Arlt reveals reveals the number-one attraction Chinese travelers talk about on social media.
What is the top advice you give for destinations to be China-ready when things are changing so fast?
Be aware there are different kinds of Chinese travelers.
Are you talking to package tourists? There are still many of them waiting for their first chance to get out of China, and many of them will go for the cheapest package tour.
Do not underestimate the Chinese traveler.
Destinations that are not New York City or the Grand Canyon will have second-generation travelers. They have already been to many places, so do not underestimate their knowledge and ability to compare. They might have been to more places than you and they might have more money than you.
They are what we call money-rich but time-poor.
You must offer interesting experiences, but it shouldn’t be more than half a day. And you should take video to give them afterward, perhaps along with a certificate, to document the experience.
Show respect to the Chinese culture.
They will be happy to see that you have Mandarin Chinese translated material, that there is a Chinese flag hanging outside or a Chinese breakfast option on the menu.
Acknowledge that China is part of the global culture.
Many of them are anxious they will not be treated well because they are Chinese. They are always looking for signs that they are being treated as second-class. So you need to be very careful to provide them first-class service.
Is there a responsibility to educate outbound tourists about local etiquette and customs?
I would say it is a two-way learning process. You have the problem that some Chinese people are just not behaving very well and part of it is simple inexperience. Of course, the government is handing out brochures on how to behave abroad. But we have been running focus groups, and some Chinese travelers will say “I paid, so I can be what I want.” They are aware that they are the biggest market. For the Chinese, it’s not “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” But it’s rather, “Whoever pays the band decides which music they should play.”
On a personal note, was there a moment when you realized that your work in outbound Chinese travel was helping transform the world?
When I started doing trips for Germans to China in the late 1970s, I had one customer, a man in his 70s. We went to The Great Wall, and at that time it was almost empty. He started to walk, and he walked much further than anybody else. He was quite exhausted when he came back, but he said, “When I was a child, I was given a picture book about The Great Wall, so I have been dreaming about doing this for about 70 years.”
Today, with a billion people traveling, moments like that happen less and less. I have not been back to The Great Wall in many, many years, because I am afraid to lose the nice image I have in my head.
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