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China’s Rise of the ‘EASTs’

Chinese travelers are changing. Opulent suites overlooking the Seine. Armfuls of shopping bags on Fifth Avenue. Private beaches in the Maldives.

Chinese travelers are changing. Opulent suites overlooking the Seine. Armfuls of shopping bags on Fifth Avenue. Private beaches in the Maldives. China’s ultra-wealthy travelers have been there and done it.

As the motivations and attitudes towards travel among this discerning group have evolved, so have the activities and destinations. Instead, today sees the rise of the EASTs: ‘experience and adventure seeking tourists’, looking beyond the ordinary for unique experiences and even new physical challenges.

The shift in travel behaviour has had a variety of key drivers. From a desire to connect with nature, broaden the mind and live healthily, to the increasing value of experiences, bragging rights and even railing against the mainstream. The influence of television adventure shows such as Dragon TV’s Survivor Games and public figures like Wang Shi (Chairman of China’s largest real estate developer Vanke) climbing Everest have had some effect in normalizing once improbable destinations.

“The rise of EASTs has happened fairly rapidly over the last five years. Just scan through WeChat Moments (the equivalent of Facebook’s feed), and there is a clear shift in terms of destinations and activities. Tourists are swapping shopping for experiences and local cultures,” says Lilian Lee, Partner at Reuter Communications, a premium lifestyle communications agency based in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Whether off-roading in the Sahara, abseiling in New Zealand and going off-piste in Aspen, China’s ever more affluent, adventurous and sophisticated travellers are heading far beyond the tourist trail – but what do they really want?

1. Culture over shopping.
Hotspots for luxury shopping like Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Paris, have been replaced by destinations less renowned for boutiques and department stores, as material possessions take a back seat. Colombia, Chile, and Argentina have seen Chinese tourists increase by more than 20 percent year-on-year, with Ctrip, China’s leading online travel agency naming Peru as its destination of the year in 2015. Whether it’s hiking in Latin America, watching the northern lights in Scandinavia or even reconnecting with parts of their own culture in remote Western China, the wealthy Chinese traveler is looking for immersion in authentic local culture and hospitality. Long gone are the days when they might only eat in restaurants with menus written in Chinese, today it’s about indulging in the local sights, sounds, flavours and customs.

2. Sharing unique experiences with friends.
Much has been said about the value of experiences when it comes to luxury travel, but getting away from the mainstream and coming away with new unforgettable experiences is a primary motivation for the adventurous traveler. In addition, whereas tourism might have often been undertaken by couples or families, travel with groups of friends is increasingly on the rise. But posing in front of the Eiffel Tower or snorkeling in the Maldives just don’t carry the same status any longer. New and adventurous experiences not only bring positive self-development, but also project an image to other people that “I’m living an extraordinary lifestyle.”

3. Getting active.
A recent survey of Chinese tourists planning trips to New Zealand showed that fifty-four percent intended to go abseiling or caving, 46 percent bungee jumping and 63 percent tubing, water sledging or river surfing (Source: Tourism New Zealand, 2015), making it clear that interest in action sports is growing. The number of Chinese tourists visiting Aspen has doubled over the past several years (source: Aspen Skiing Company, 2016), driven in part by interest in the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, but also part of a wider shift. According to a Citi Research report published in October 2016, sports tourism is the fastest growing segment in China’s travel industry, due in large part to a desire for connecting with nature, unplugging from screens and Wi-Fi, and getting active and healthy.

4. Luxury still plays a role.
Whilst the destinations and the activities might have changed, these travelers aren’t your average backpackers. There is still the expectation of the best. Whilst today’s middle-class Chinese tourist is not afraid of free independent travel, the very wealthy are still willing to pay for services, whether travel agents, fixers or online premium booking platforms. They want to hike in Patagonia, but they want 4x4s taking them to the best guest-houses, with star-lit dining overlooking the mountains. With clients including renowned hospitability brands such as AMAN and Ritz Carlton Reserve, Reuter Communications has noticed another trend. “We are seeing a number of travelers balancing their trips between luxury and adventure. They might spend several days climbing in the foothills of Bhutan, but then they will head to a stunning resort like Amankora for indulging and pampering,” commented Lee.

5. Getting there.
The concept of travel has itself changed, and now the journey might be the most memorable part of the trip. Once preferring to keep their money to use at the destination, Chinese travelers are now splashing out on the journey. With the market for jet-related industries in China estimated at $152.3 billion, according to ABACE data, and charter jet companies like Hong Kong-based Metrojet, VistaJet and China’s Star Jet offering easy access to private travel, the uptake in private jet charters across China are on the rise. Recent launches of refreshed First Class cabins on major Chinese airlines, and the arrival and growth of the five-star cruise industry are steadily redefining first-class travel.

Confident, daring and increasingly discerning, and with the wealth to facilitate it, these affluent travelers are searching beyond the mainstream, and in turn providing an exciting opportunity for the global travel and hospitality industry. “It’s clear that tourists want something more from their travels than before. The brands, destinations and activities that can offer the extraordinary will be well positioned to capture China’s EASTs in the years to come,” added Lee.