Finding a steaming plate of pad thai or a hearty massaman curry in China is infinitely easier today than it was five years ago. In Shanghai alone, there are now more than 225 Thai restaurants. The snowballing of Thai cuisine is representative of the overall growth of foreign cuisine in China – a product of rising discretionary income and increasingly adventurous diners, but also by the growth of tourism.
9.8 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand last year, almost 600% more than in 2011 – the days before the 2012 hit movie Lost in Thailand brought the country into the spotlight in the mainland. The most interesting driver behind the rise of tourists is the number of Chinese coming from lower tier cities. This has been helped by stress-free visas on arrival, which are typically harder to get in lower tier cities, and the accessibility of the country. Direct flights between cities in China and Thailand grew from 69 to 148 over the past three years.
Although sun-seekers hoping to have Thai beaches to themselves won’t be too delighted, soaring Chinese tourism to Thailand has benefits far beyond Thailand’s touts and business owners. In the years that China Skinny has been tracking Chinese tourists, we have noted a speedy evolution in the way they travel. The first few trips are almost all to locations in close proximity – historically to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan but increasingly to Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries. This whets their appetite and builds confidence for more exotic, long haul destinations that are more aspirational and build status and street cred from WeChat Moments’ posts.
Evolving travel is good news for well-marketed and China-ready destinations beyond Asia – not just those in the tourism industry, but many sectors exporting to China. Food exports are an obvious beneficiary: 55% of Chinese overseas travellers claim enjoying food is a key objective when heading abroad according to Nielsen research. Tourism Australia research has found Chinese who visited Australia in 2016 are 40% more likely to rate Australian food and wine as good. Similar research discovered that Chinese tourists to Australia spent 40% more on Australian products after returning to the mainland. It makes sense, when you’ve returned home after spending time in China, you’re probably more likely to seek out dumplings, Sichuan peppers and the like.
The positive flow-on effects go well beyond food. Our research has found similar affinities with Chinese tourists to Nordic countries who are much more likely to purchase and advocate Nordic furniture, fashion and other design, as well as meatballs.
Those tourists from lower tier cities who are filling planes to Thailand are also the next generation of travellers to European, North American and Australasian destinations.
Of the 820 million Chinese who live in urban areas, just 73 million – less than 9% – live in first tier cities. Although almost all of the other 91% have never travelled, they are starting to consider places like Thailand, and then further afield. They will get a taste of foreign products and lifestyles, sharing them with their networks back home, all of whom will be a little more inclined to buy things from afar. They are the 750 million reasons why the China opportunity still has so much upside. Agencies such as China Skinny can ensure you are best placed to tap that opportunity. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.