A visit to a vineyard like the one in the Tibetan village of Cizhong in Yunnan province, provides a glimpse into how China has evolved over the past couple of years since it closed its borders. The boutique vineyard is nothing short of breathtaking, nestled alongside an historic Catholic church built by French missionaries over a hundred years ago, set amongst remote mountains and high above the steep gorges of the Lancang (Mekong) River.
The vineyard and the Chinese who visit it are a far cry from the people who used to make up almost all of China’s domestic vinitourists, arriving in bus loads to vast wineries across China’s wine growing regions. The China Skinny team visited one of the better-known wineries a few years ago, hosted in an immense, but poorly-executed replica of a Bordeaux chateau. A large part of the tour involved propaganda-style videos in the venue’s theatre, with the main focus being that the wine was ‘a triple-A brand’. The wine itself wasn’t great and the tour guides didn’t feel overly engaged or authentic, churning through the constant arrivals of armies of corporate visitors.
Visitors to vineyards like in Cizhong and other boutique vineyards across China are representative of a new-wave of wine consumers in China who have sophisticated wine tastes and knowledge. In the past, China’s committed wine lovers would largely travel to vineyards in Europe, Australasia and North America. But with borders closed, these enthusiasts have sought out wines closer to home and, in many cases, the wine and related tourism infrastructure is catching up.
There are larger trends at play than the rise of refined cellar doors and more palatable wine. Chinese consumers are increasingly shunning the old fashioned “ugly rich” traits, and are continuing to become more sophisticated in their tastes, and more knowledgeable across virtually every consumer category.
Coffee is a very visible example. In 2018, Starbucks commanded a 70% share of coffeehouse sales in China, a rate unmatched by a single brand across any other major category in China. Coffee shops have since exploded in China, with Shanghai now hosting more coffee shops than any other city in the world, and per-capita rates similar to Tokyo and not far behind London. Big international chains such as Starbucks and Costa, account for just 35% of coffeehouses in the city now, with the rise of local and international boutique roasters such as Manner and Blue Bottle eroding Starbucks’ dominance. Like wine and coffee, there are increasingly refined consumers demanding increasingly refined products, many who are prepared to pay a premium for both domestic and imported brands that hit the mark.
From a tourism perspective, more authentic wine tours are representative of how China’s domestic tourism has upped it game since the pandemic first hit, providing many of the services that Chinese would mostly travel abroad for in the past. This is across almost everything, from adrenaline holidays to luxury shopping, as we’ve seen from the rise of Hainan.
The current viral Omicron strain in China is looking to be much tougher for China to contain than previous outbreaks, with China seeing its first Covid-deaths in more than a year. Depending on how things are contained, the outbreak may provide some impetus for China to start thinking about opening up, as we saw with formerly zero-covid countries like Australia and New Zealand. When they do, more Chinese leaving the shores will help tourist and education operators globally, and indirectly building more affinities with foreign brands that they see and try while abroad. Negative sentiment towards other countries is also likely to improve, indicated by the 7% more confidence Chinese have of the American president if they have personal contact with the country.
When Chinese tourists and students return, they won’t be the same as when we last saw them in early-2020. Their expectations have increased, as have their alternatives at home. The window between now and when China opens up is a good time for tourism and education businesses to get prepared. This will ensure that when Chinese visitors come, they will have an optimal experience and be advocates – rather than critics – of your offerings. Many international agents and tour organisers have pivoted to other things, digital platform preferences have shifted, and policies have changed, so there’s work to be done both at home and on the ground in China.
Whether you sell wine, coffee, tourism, education or another product or service, get in touch with China Skinny to learn how we can assist you to align with the new look Chinese consumer and their expectations.
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