According to observations by New Zealand’s Auckland Airport, the online ‘buzz’ and travellers first-hand interactions with online followers is fuelling a shift in Chinese travel preferences as China reopens for international outbound travel.
A change in trend
Scott Tasker, Chief Customer Officer at Auckland Airport, says that China has always been a country where consumer trends move extremely fast. He observes that, similarly, travel has not been immune in the three years since borders closed at the start of the pandemic.
“Although Chinese have only really begun international travel in any great numbers in the past few months, there has been a definite acceleration in the move beyond group travel into taking a more independent approach travel.”
“That’s a very typical pattern we’re used to seeing as inbound tourism markets mature and was a trend we were seeing pre-pandemic but what’s different is the speed at which this is happening,” Mr Tasker said.
New Zealand has been among the first 20 countries to have been accredited for group travel from China. Despite this, prior to the pandemic there had been a steady decline in group travel, from 66% of Chinese tourists in 2012 to 37% in 2019, Tasker reports.
“Group travel is still important for newer, less experienced travellers and can help fill in the demand gaps during our quieter seasons but we’re expecting this shift to independent travel to continue, fuelled by the internet reviews and social media content.”
“These increasingly confident travellers tend to stay longer and spend more,” he says.
Speaking at the New Zealand Tourism Forum at TRENZ in ōtautahi Christchurch, Mr Tasker said the return of regular, direct air connections into China’s largest metropolitan areas unlocks a major market of high value travellers for New Zealand.
“We’ve now got Air New Zealand and China Eastern operating daily into Shanghai and China Southern flying daily into Guangzhou, with Air China just last week restarting its link with Beijing four times a week.”
“Once we add in Hainan Airlines with its twice a week service from next month, we’ll have 27 direct flights between Auckland and four major Chinese cities. The ease and simplicity of those direct flights helps get New Zealand on the radar of Chinese tourists,” Mr Tasker said.
The current China network
This month has seen the ramp up of China services on a couple of fronts for the New Zealand carrier. Firstly, on May 2, Air New Zealand’s alliance partner Air China touched down at Auckland Airport for the first time in three years.
The partnering effectively gives Air New Zealand customers a direct route to Beijing – the world’s most populous capital city.
On the following day, May 3, Air New Zealand’s Auckland-Shanghai flights returned to a daily scheduling.
Seat capacity between China and New Zealand is currently at 78% of 2019 levels and forecast to reach 93% of pre-pandemic levels by September.
“While we haven’t seen Chinese travellers in any numbers since pre-pandemic – and that’s still really the case given the need for passport renewals and visa processing – what we do know is they are researching online, watching social media recommendations from fellow Chinese travellers, and taking a really considered approach to travel choices,” Tasker noted.
Offline channels such as travel agents are rapidly making way for China’s unique ecosystem of social media platforms such as Wechat, Xiaohongshu and Douyin, coupled with online travel services platforms Fliggy, Ctrip and Qunar, as well as airline direct channels.
“Travel agents are still in the mix, but that share is shrinking as Chinese travellers are increasingly going online to work out where they want to take their next overseas trip.
“Video content is huge, particularly influencers showing destinations and experiences in real time via live shows. This is creating a real demand for travel experiences and special interest travel rather than choices being solely about the destination,” said Mr Tasker.
It seems that there has been a growing trend to move away from the more mainstream tourist attractions, with a switch noted by Tasker to more nature-based and outdoor tourism activities
While New Zealand sits outside the top international destination preferences for Chinese travellers – Southeast Asia dominates – it ticks a lot of boxes for a smaller, niche travel market.