China travel trends for 2024: visas made easier, more cultural tourism

Citing analysis released jointly by the WTTC and Oxford Economics, Simpson says that travel and tourism are estimated to have contributed 7.8 per cent to the Chinese economy in 2023, employing about 74 million people in an industry worth US$1.48 trillion.

Tourists look at giant pandas at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, in August 2023. Photo: Getty Images
“If you compare where China is to the rest of the world, it’s still slightly behind [in international recovery],” Simpson says, identifying the lack of airlift capacity and complex visa requirements as the main challenges.

“We have a little bit of a problem at the minute with people from the West, and particularly America, getting here by air because of the Russian airspace issues,” she says. “American airlines are not flying over Russian airspace [because of its war on Ukraine], so it means adding on some time.”

“Whenever you put a transfer into a trip, it always puts people off,” she adds. “Fuel is so expensive. It means you’re not still getting quite as much airlift.”

With regards to traffic in the opposite direction, “a lot of Chinese want to travel overseas, but they’re having difficulty getting visas at the embassies”, Simpson says. “It’s not about geopolitics, it’s just about resourcing.

Chinese visitors dip lotus bulbs in a water bowl at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Thailand was the top international destination for Chinese tourists in 2023. Photo: AFP

“There aren’t enough people in the embassies, and also [for] a lot of Chinese people, their passport [has] expired. These are temporary issues, but it’s slightly slowed the recovery.”

According to travel booking site, the top five international destinations for Chinese tourists in 2023 were, in order of popularity: Thailand; Japan; South Korea; Singapore and Malaysia.

While Chinese outbound and inbound tourism has not reached pre-pandemic levels, “the domestic travel business has outperformed 2019”, says Frederick Wong, vice-president of commercial, Greater China at Hyatt Hotels.

“If we look at the data from [travel data provider] OAG, our domestic airlift, in terms of seat capacity, has already exceeded 2019. We’re looking at 118 per cent [as of November].”

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Julia Simpson, president World Travel & Tourism Council

Customer behaviour has also changed since the pandemic, with domestic travellers increasingly looking for experiences centred on culture, Wong says.

“What they’re really looking for is the blend of cultural heritage, unique experiences, scenic beauty [and] historical significance.”

As such, many travellers are flocking to secondary and tertiary cities such as Chengdu, Hangzhou, Changsha and Nanjing, where costs are lower than when travelling abroad or to major cities like Shanghai.

Key opinion leaders (KOLs) – who regularly post about their experiences on Chinese social media platforms such as Xiaohongshu – are partly responsible for spurring the trend towards cultural experiences, Wong says.

A light rail train runs through a residential building in the Yuzhong district of Chongqing. Photo: Future Publishing via Getty Images

“The travel KOLs focus a lot on cultural initiatives, targeted tourism campaigns, infrastructure [and] the modern development of the secondary and tertiary cities, [which] really help the travellers to know more about cities.”

Chongqing, for example, is famous for its hotpot, but the city is also home to a particularly photogenic spot that has been making the social media rounds – Liziba station, in the Yuzhong district, where a train runs through the middle of a residential building.

KOL power has also been seen in Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of China.

“It is not an international city. Even for domestic Chinese travellers, they don’t go there often,” Wong says. “However, when we opened a hotel and worked with KOLs [who posted] a lot of stories about Jingdezhen, they attracted a lot of domestic travellers to that city.”

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Domestic travellers are also looking to combine business and leisure – “bleisure” – an option afforded by the flexible working schedules adopted during the pandemic, Wong says. Comparing October 2019 to October 2023, Hyatt has seen a 15- to 19 per cent increase in occupancy across its hotels in China, he says.

“In the past, for the West Lake [in Hangzhou], a lot of people went down there for a weekend, maybe from Shanghai, from Suzhou or the surrounding Zhejiang area. But we see the pattern also shifting to weekdays,” Wong says.

Similarly, Hyatt’s hotels in business hubs are seeing more weekend occupancy.

Tourists visit the West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China. Photo: Getty Images

Younger travellers are emphasising sustainability, prioritising organic and local food choices and eco-friendly transport.

“In China at least, they would prefer to hear [that] the ingredients are actually from the surrounding area,” Wong says, as opposed to rare ingredients flown in from around the world. This mirrors a global hospitality trend.

“People are expecting the sector to act sustainably, so hotels look at things like plastics, food waste, energy consumption,” Simpson says.

The WTTC helps hotels sign agreements to buy renewable energy, and is encouraging governments to work with energy providers to supply more sustainable fuel.

Wong says that while people from China used to visit Hong Kong to shop, the activity has become more of an add-on because of the variety of stores in China’s major cities.

Many countries in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region have seen a strong recovery in travel and tourism.

Omri Morgenshtern is the chief executive of Agoda. Photo: Agoda

“For the majority of the big tourist destination countries – Thailand, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore – inbound [travel] to those countries has reached or exceeded 2019 levels,” says Omri Morgenshtern, chief executive of online travel agency Agoda.

According to Agoda’s search data – which is, Morgenshtern stresses, biased towards leisure travel – Japan, helped by its depreciating yen, is easily the biggest inbound travel destination in the APAC region, with plenty of visitors from Southeast and North Asia.

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“India has a huge population that is entering this level where they are capable, financially, to travel outside India. They feel the trust or the confidence to do that,” Morgenshtern says, adding that an increasing number of countries are easing entry requirements for Indian passport holders, the latest including Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Iran and Kenya.

“India is [also] going to be a revolution on the aviation side,” he adds. Since Air India was bought by Tata Sons from the government last year, the carrier has been going through a major overhaul and signed a US$70 billion deal in June to buy 470 planes from Boeing and Airbus. That same week, Indian budget airline IndiGo placed an order for 500 Airbus passenger jets.

Going into 2024, Wong anticipates that inbound travel to China will increase along with improved airlift capacity, especially since more international events – such as the Formula One motorsport event in Shanghai,, the International Auto Show in Beijing and international banking and finance conferences in business hubs – will return.

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Both Wong and Simpson believe that travellers have put most of their concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic behind them.

“The Western countries are so over Covid now. I think that the travellers trust that if something is now open, they’re not going to get caught [and] locked down,” says Simpson.

According to, China’s top markets for inbound tourism are South Korea, Japan, Singapore, the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Canada, Thailand, Britain and Germany, with 70 per cent of those visitors heading to Shenzhen.

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China’s industry is currently “recovering very powerfully”, and the country is expected to overtake the United States as the biggest single travel and tourism economy within a decade, says Simpson.

“In 10 years, we expect that travel and tourism in China will be worth over 14 per cent of the economy,” employing 105 million people, she says.

“The global economy is probably going to grow on average 2.4 per cent a year, but travel and tourism is going to grow by about 5.6 per cent,” says Simpson. “So it’s a growth economy.”

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