Business Maverick

Business Maverick

China’s thrifty travellers show consumer confidence is weak

China’s thrifty travellers show consumer confidence is weak
Pedestrians in Macau, China, on Thursday, 2 May 2024. Macau's casino industry showed resilience in April, with gaming revenue surpassing analyst estimates despite weeks of bad weather in southern China.

Chinese tourists hit the road in greater numbers during a recent five-day Labour Day holiday but kept a tight grip on their wallets, reflecting still-weak sentiment in the world’s second-largest economy.

Travellers made 28.2% more trips but spending only rose 13.5% from the 2019 break, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism said in a statement on Monday. This translates to a 11.5% drop in spending for each traveller over the holiday ending on Sunday, according to banks including Societe Generale, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc.

“Spending per head softened and was again below the pre-pandemic level, owing partly to more tourist flows towards lower-tier cities, and suggesting continued consumption downgrading,” said Goldman economists including Lisheng Wang in a note late on Monday, adding that more policy support is needed to sustain the recovery of the services sector. The 2019 holiday was one day shorter.

The figures add to evidence showing Chinese households remain cautious with consumption despite a recent rebound in economic growth driven by a pickup in industrial activity. Less than one in four residents wanted to spend more while a growing share of the urban population wanted to save in the first quarter, according to a survey by the People’s Bank of China.

Travellers made a total of 20.7 million trips by rail across the country on 1 May, a new high for any single day on record, state broadcaster China Central Television reported late on Sunday, citing government data.

The holiday season also showed a shift in how Chinese travellers spend since the country reopened from pandemic isolation. While big cities like Beijing and Shanghai remained popular, many more opted for cheaper destinations and small towns, online travel agency Trip.com Group said in a Sunday statement.

“(The) lower-tier market made a relaxing holiday possible for tourists, and they had better value for money as accommodation and dining costs spiked in tier-1 and tier-2 cities during the break,” Wang Yalei, an analyst with Trip.com, said in the statement.

Social media accounts promoting tourism in small towns have blossomed as tourists look for cheaper, off-the-beaten-path attractions. China’s expanding high-speed rail network and rising car ownership have also enabled travellers to get to more places within hours.

Bookings for hotels and tourist spots in tier-3 or lower-ranked cities in the country’s northwest and west more than doubled during the break from the same period a year earlier, according to data released by Tongcheng Travel Holdings, another tourism agency.

Inbound and outbound tourism also gained momentum during the holiday as China restored more air routes and expanded visa-free arrangements to more countries, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism said. Chinese travellers made 1.9 million trips abroad while 1.8 million visitors entered the country, it said, without providing last year’s numbers.

The US, Australia and the UK were the main long-haul destinations and Hong Kong, Macau, Southeast Asia, Japan and South Korea were the most popular for short-distance trips, according to Trip.com. Middle Eastern countries including Oman, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait saw more than 300% surge in bookings, it said.

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