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What’s Driving Chinese Wanderlust during the Lunar New Year?

By Poornima Weerasekara

Chinese wanderlust will be alive during the Spring Festival as 6.5 million people are expected to travel overseas instead of going home to spend their Lunar New Year with nosy relatives.

Although it’s still a fraction of those choosing to go home, the trend has been growing, according to data from China’s largest online travel services provider, Ctrip.com International Ltd.

The Lunar New Year is one of the two so-called “golden weeks” for travel in China, the other being the one-week National Day holiday in October. This year it’s the week from Feb. 15-21.

Thailand remains the hottest destination for 4 years running given the affordable flights and the country’s sunny beaches. South Korea, another favorite, saw numbers of Chinese visitors dwindle as relations between the two countries soured. The number of Chinese travelers to the country started dropping in March due to a fall-out over the U.S. THAAD missile defense system deployed in the country. But this was good news for Japan, which managed to divert travellers to its shores. Vietnam also saw a huge increase in the number of Chinese visitors after President Xi Jinping’s visit during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leader’s meeting.

Those in their 30’s and 40’s accounted for nearly half of all Chinese travelers who went abroad, while those in their 20’s and those born after the year 2000, were the two fastest-growing segments.

But there is something more than just curiosity about the world that was fuelling the need to travel among young people in China. According to a survey by Ctrip, a third of those born after the ‘90s said they opted to stay away from family gatherings during the Lunar New Year to avoid the dreaded question: “When are you going to get married?”

Chinese travel habits are also changing. Although Chinese tourists in the past preferred to travel in large groups, following a flag-carrying guide bellowing instructions into a megaphone, the number of independent travellers or those who opted for customized tours exclusively for their family was on the rise.

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Many were also moving away from discount packages and were willing to pay more for luxury travel. For example, Chinese travelers heading to Europe, preferred to book luxury hotels, according to the Shanghai-based travel agency. Bookings for luxury accommodation jumped 72% last year, Ctrip said.

More people are also opting to celebrate the Lunar New Year on luxury cruise liners. Although Ctrip didn’t reveal exact booking numbers, a spokesperson for the company said many of cruises include traditional Spring Festival activities and entertainment like making dumplings and Chinese crosstalk performances.

China’s affluent thrill-seekers are also looking for less traveled destinations. The South Pole tops the list of destinations for adrenaline junkies. The number of Chinese travellers to Antarctica has risen from less than a 100 in 2008 to over 5,000 visitors last year. Each person was willing to spend a whopping 100,000-200,000 yuan ($15,900-$31,800) per trip to the South Pole. In comparison, the North Pole remains cheaper. Around 10,000 Chinese traveled to North Pole in 2017, a 160% increase compared to the previous year, each adventurer spending about 20,000-30,000 yuan per trip.

Contact reporter Poornima Weerasekara (poornima@caixin.com)

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