How Chinese tourists are reshaping the global travel economy

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This story is part of an ongoing Quartz series on how China is reshaping our world.

In less than two decades, China has become the world’s most important source of international visitors. Last year, Chinese tourists spent a whopping $270 billion on globetrotting, nearly twice as much as American tourists. 

It’s easy to forget that Chinese tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Traveling overseas for leisure didn’t become legal in China until the 90s. In 2001, Chinese tourists only made 12 million trips abroad. In 2018, that number was 150 million

Robert Xiang Li, director of the U.S.-Asia Center for Tourism & Hospitality Research at Temple University, said the international tourism industry has never seen growth at this scale before. 

Countries and businesses have not been subtle in their attempts to appeal to this lucrative market. The UK famously launched a campaign inviting Chinese tourists to rename Britain’s most famous landmarks. (The Shard tower was rechristened ‘Tower To Pluck Stars From The Sky.’) International hotel chains have made adjustments to room designs like replacing alcohol bars with noodle bars and creating more multi-room suites to better cater to Chinese travelers.

As the industry evolves to capture this growth, Chinese tourists themselves are also evolving.  The stereotypical image of the shopaholic Chinese tourist on a traditional tour package is giving way to independent travelers on customized, boutique-style trips, enabled by travel sites and WeChat-based services.  

“Increased use of social media channels in the Chinese online universe has become paramount,” said  Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission. The EU expects 6.8% growth in Chinese visitors in 2019.

The Chinese tourism boom isn’t likely to end anytime soon. Only about 10% of Chinese people have passports, compared to 40% of Americans and more than 70% of Britons. But chasing the boom comes with its risks. Beijing has a record of using tourism as a tool to wield political pressure, with varying levels of success. The influence is especially strong on China’s neighbors, which have benefited the most from the rise of Chinese outbound travel. 

Quartz’s Because China team travels to Japan and Korea to uncover how Chinese tourists have the power to reshape the global tourism economy.