Regional China: domestic tourism

There has been much focus on China's outbound tourist industry in recent years, but the established domestic tourism sector also continues to report strong growth.

A feature by The Economist Intelligence Unit

The south-western provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan are the most dependent on tourism in GDP terms. Authorities have been pushing for "characteristic towns" and rural tourism to help its campaign to cut poverty. The quality of domestic tourism has also improved significantly, with new forms of accommodation, such as Airbnb (US) and Tujia (China), catering for shifting consumer tastes for more immersive local experiences. The Chinese middle class is also increasingly exploring sporting activities and weekend getaways to rural retreats.

In 2016 domestic tourism revenue reached Rmb3.9trn (US$587.3bn), representing growth of 15.2 per cent, while tourist arrivals rose by 11.2 per cent to 4.4bn. The definition of tourism used by the National Bureau of Statistics is broad and includes trips for sightseeing, holidays, medical treatment, conferences and business visits. According to the National Tourism Administration, there were 79m jobs attached to the tourism sector in 2015 (the available latest data), accounting for 10.2 per cent of total employment. The sector also receives policy support; the national 13th five-year plan (2016-20) highlights proposals to develop more domestic holiday destinations, such as hot springs, ski resorts, beaches, islands, mountains and forests.

China's tourist industry is driven mostly by locals. In 2016 overseas tourist arrivals totalled 138.4m, equivalent to just 3 per cent of domestic tourist arrivals. China's coastal and border provinces attract more foreigners than inland regions. Growth in inbound visits has also slowed in recent years, to 3.5 per cent in 2016 from 4.1 per cent the previous year. The slowdown could be partly due to higher travelling costs in China, but concerns about air and water pollution, food safety and restrictions on internet access may also be putting off travellers from overseas. Other popular tourism destinations in Asia, such as Thailand, provide better services and environment.

Tourism dependence

The highest levels of tourism-related revenue are earned by the eastern coastal provinces. The population is concentrated in those regions, and they offer the most developed tourist infrastructure. The leading province was the national capital, Beijing, which collected tourist revenue of Rmb502.1bn in 2016, followed by Tianjin and Zhejiang.

Tourism revenue-to-GDP ratio by province 2016

However, in terms of reliance on tourism as a driver of economic activity, inland western and central provinces have the highest levels of dependence. The eastern coastal provinces generally have well-developed and diversified economies, which leave them less dependent on a single sector.

In 2016 the south-western province of Guizhou had the nation's highest ratio of tourism revenue to GDP, at 43 per cent, pointing to the highest level of dependence. It was followed by Shanxi, at 33 per cent, and Yunnan, at 32 per cent. Tourism has been an important economic growth-driver for Guizhou, with the province leveraging its rich ethnic heritage to develop related sightseeing activities. The apparent reliance on tourism of Shanxi, China's coal base, is less immediately explicable, although the ancient city of Pingyao is a draw. The province is striving to develop the sector as it aims to reduce its dependence on coal mining.

Elsewhere, tourism is important to the economy of Tibet, which had a tourism revenue-to-GDP ratio of 29 per cent in 2016. The central authorities have spent billions of dollars to improve rail and road connections to the region, led by the inauguration of the Tibet-Qinghai railway in 2008. Visits to Tibet increased almost sixfold between 2007 and 2016, to 23.2m, despite a fall in visitors in 2008 amid local unrest and rioting. Less successful have been efforts to draw tourists to Xinjiang, in the north-west, which has a relatively low dependence on the sector. Security concerns and travel restrictions are likely to thwart the development of local tourism in that region. 

Not all interior provinces are dependent on tourism. Ningxia had the lowest tourism revenue-to-GDP ratio in 2016, at 7 per cent, but its integration into the high-speed railway network may help to draw more visitors. A connection between the provincial capital, Yinchuan, and Xi'an (the capital of central Shaanxi province) is due to be completed by 2020. Two other lines are under construction, connecting Yinchuan with Lanzhou (the provincial capital of Gansu) and Qingdao (Shandong). The province also has a promising wine industry, and vineyard tours are available to visitors. The second lowest ratio was recorded by Heilongjiang, at 10 per cent. Cold weather and long travelling distances may deter visitors, although the annual Ice Festival in the provincial capital, Harbin, remains a pull.

Sector trends

One priority for the government in the domestic sector is the enhancement of rural tourism. This is seen as key to broader economic goals, with the government committed to eliminating rural poverty by 2020. By the end of 2017 a total of Rmb550bn (US$81.4bn) will have been pumped into the sector, according to an action plan released by the National Development and Reform Commission (the country's top economic planner) in July 2017.

To this end, building "characteristic towns" to highlight local culture has become a major trend. Wuzhen, a historic town in Zhejiang province, is a model in this regard and now attracts the most visitors of any characteristic town. However, replicating its success will be difficult. Wuzhen is favourably located within an hour's drive of Shanghai, Suzhou and Zhangzhou – some of China's richest and most densely populated regions. Its tourist services are well-designed, and the town also hosts prominent cultural and business events (such as the annual World Internet Conference). In contrast, many other similar towns have been hastily planned. The government claims that more than 400 "national-level" characteristic towns have been established, but so far the main source of economic activity for most of these towns is still property development.

Outbound challenges

China's domestic tourism industry is well-established, but it faces a challenge in maintaining growth given the increasing popularity of overseas travel. The number of outbound tourist departures from China jumped to 135m in 2016, up from 57m in 2010. Besides the novelty, tourists are attracted overseas by the promise of a better environment and higher quality services (such as shopping).

The domestic sector is trying to respond by enhancing its offerings. Short weekend holidays in rural areas have become more commonplace, owing to rising car ownership and rental car access. Destinations are also offering more variety, with specialist accommodation offerings (such as forest lodges and camping), adventure tourism and sporting events becoming more popular. Long-distance running events have become a major attraction, for example. Even with the risk of severe air pollution, nearly 100,000 runners registered for the 2017 Beijing Marathon.

A number of companies offering alternative accommodation – such as Airbnb (US) and Tujia (China), which allow users to share or rent out their own rooms or entire lodgings – are also on the rise, particularly as younger Chinese tourists increasingly opt for individual or backpacking trips aimed at local cultural immersion, rather than shopping. Airbnb has also partnered with a number of local governments on tourism projects, with the aim of using tourism as a revitalising economic force in rural or remote areas.

Challenges still persist, however. Many domestic tourist sites are poorly designed, overcrowded during public holidays and excessively priced. Infrastructure and facilities in rural areas are also quite basic. It will be some time before domestic tourist services catch up to the level that a growing portion of the local population can access overseas.

A feature by The Economist Intelligence Unit