While the COVID-19 pandemic has largely limited China's outbound travel, strong demand in the domestic market has presented new trends among Chinese tourists over the past two years.
Experts say these trends could have a "spillover effect" on international travel, once it resumes, and destinations should take note of the new habits when designing products for Chinese travelers.
A recent polling report from McKinsey & Co indicated that Chinese travelers are gravitating toward premium, integrated experiences that go beyond the typical packaged tour.
Sienna Parulis-Cook, director of marketing and communications at Dragon Trail International, said: "There are some trends in Chinese tourism that were already on the rise pre-pandemic and have been accelerated by or since the pandemic. One of these is the shift away from traditional, large, coach-trip style group tourism and toward FITs (free independent travelers) and smaller private and/or customized group travel."
In Dragon Trail's latest China Traveler Sentiment Survey, 81 percent of Chinese travelers surveyed said FIT trips were their ideal type, and only 5 percent chose large group tours.
"Small group travel has also been consistently popular for domestic tourism in China since the pandemic hit, and we expect that there will be increased demand in this area for outbound travel, once it resumes," Parulis-Cook said.
Related to this, she said that before the pandemic there was growing demand for special, authentic and unique travel experiences to explore personal interests, which is especially important to younger Chinese travelers, and to go beyond the typical package-tour itinerary.
Oliver Sedlinger, a veteran Beijing-based consultant on the outbound Chinese travel market, and founder of the tourism marketing consultancy Sedlinger and Associates, said there are many differences between domestic and international travel, but "it seems very likely that at least some of the new habits developed and new tastes acquired in this period will have a spillover effect".
"There clearly are underlying megatrends, such as healthy lifestyle or urbanization, which influence attitudes and consumption in a fundamental way," he said. "The current emerging travel trends in China reflect new lifestyle choices, new interests, new values and also the new experiences. ... So it seems only logical that consumers may also adapt their outbound travel consumption at least partly, for example by choosing new off-the-beaten-track destinations or destinations based on their individual special interests."
Wolfgang Arlt, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, said certain consumption habits will "have a strong influence on the international travel behavior".
"Smaller groups, more family travel, more 'meaningful tourism' in the sense of doing and experiencing and learning instead of passive observation, going to smaller and new destinations, a stronger focus on hobbies and special interests－all this will stay and the international service provider has to prepare for that now," he added.
Data from Chinese online travel platform Mafengwo indicates that sports tourism is on the rise, because the pandemic has pushed Chinese people－and many others around the world－to focus more on outdoor activities, and has underscored the value of good health.
Arlt said he agrees that health has become more of an issue because of the pandemic, but also because the 50-plus demographic is growing.
Travel experts predict that the experience of the pandemic and of the limitation to domestic travel will generate more requirements from consumers and thereby lead to higher standards for travel products and service.
"Just opening the door and offering all Chinese visitors what you offer to everybody else will not work anymore," Arlt said. "Helping the Chinese to meet interesting local people, participate in local activities are key elements which service providers can offer and which visitors cannot easily organize themselves."
Sedlinger said: "I think that long-haul trips will become more valued and appreciated due to the long interruption. ... What we have seen in outbound travel from China in the past decade is only the tip of an iceberg; the long-term potential is still enormous, and it might well be that the recovery of outbound travel will also bring about an evolution of some kind."
He said that the strategic importance of the Chinese outbound travel market cannot be overestimated.
"I personally think as a source market, China will be more crucial than ever, so staying on course will pay off in the long run despite the current difficulties," he said.