One of the strongest drivers of global economic growth isn’t factories or financial services or internet startups, it’s what we do when we’re not working. We are becoming a planet of tourists.
For the past seven years, the traveland-tourism sector has outperformed the overall economy every year, including the wider impact on the economy, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. During the next decade, the council predicts, almost one in four jobs created worldwide will be related to tourism. Nowhere is this revolution more dramatic than in Asia. A rising tide of travelers from China is spreading out across the region, out-shopping, outspending and out-eating every other nation. They are filling hotels, tour buses and cruise ships. They are overwhelming airports and train stations, and they are sending home petabytes of pictures that encourage their compatriots to join the global invasion. Their ranks are being swollen by millions of others from around Asia, a generation who would rather raise their status with a foreign adventure than with a luxury bag. China already accounts for more than a fifth of the money spent by outbound
tourists, twice as much as the next-biggest spender, the U.S., according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. And the Chinese have barely started — only around 5% of them even have passports, and the government is issuing about 10 million new travel documents every year. As with Japan in the 1980s, citizens of nations that get rich, go places. The emerging nations of Asia-Pacific will add more than 50 million new outbound travelers in the five years ending in 2021, according to Mastercard. Overwhelmingly, they come from a smartphone-addicted generation that is rewriting the rules. The ubiquitous flagfollowing Chinese tour groups are giving way to what the industry calls FITs — free, independent travelers — who are using the internet to plan itineraries, book flights, translate signs and chronicle their exploits. “A lot of customers are wanting to do things their way,” said Chang Theng Hwee, a Singaporean who quit banking 25 years ago to build a travel business that offers bespoke holidays for wealthy Asians. “They’re not interested in joining a group.” The shift is transforming the region, unleashing more than $100 billion in infrastructure spending for bigger airports and jet fleets, new railways, hotels and theme parks. The effects of this boom include soaring property prices, stress on the environment and an avalanche of apps and innovations that reimagine the way we experience the world. By 2021, Chinese tourists will spend $US 429 billion abroad, according to a
report by CLSA. And they are spreading out. Weekend jaunts to the shops in Hong Kong or the casinos in Macau are being usurped by new favorite destinations. During the next three years, Japan, Thailand, the U.S. and Australia top the mustvisit list, according to the report, with other destinations in Southeast Asia — especially Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines — following close behind. For developing nations, that’s putting a strain on infrastructure, underpinning the biggest airport-building program in the region’s history.
Thailand doesn’t have a single international airport that isn’t way over its designed capacity, and long lines at immigration are common. At least 178 new airports are planned in Asia-Pacific, according to Visa Inc., and hundreds of existing facilities are being expanded or upgraded. The result is a second revolution in tourism in the region — one that is being fueled by social media: the opening up of more islands, cities and remote locales to divert vacationers from the overcrowded and increasingly jaded tourist hotspots of the 1990s and 2000s.
Thailand, which heavily promotes tourism under the banner “Amazing Thailand,” has teamed up with Japan to build a high-speed railway that would open up places along the route to the north of the country. Neighbor Malaysia is countering with its own cross-country rail project to the coasts of Kelantan and Terengganu, states promoted this year in the capital’s international airport under a “Joyful
Malaysia” campaign.“Travel was one of the first industries to be digitised, going all the way to the 1950s,” said Douglas Quinby, an Atlanta-based travel analyst at research firm Phocuswright.
“It’s only in the last five to seven years that there have been the tools to process such incredible amounts of data.” Quinby says China is leading the world in many mobile innovations and applications. “We have all of the user data,” said Jenna Qian, head of destination marketing at CTrip. The company monitors bookings, searches, user demographics and consumer life cycle data — every action by millions of Chinese tourists from the moment they begin to read about a location, to their habits and preferences while traveling. “From dream to research to booking to sharing, it all happens within our platform. Big data is the foundation of tourism.” Asia offers hundreds of possibilities for super-luxury globetrotters.
And developers are eyeing hundreds more. There are more than 13,000 uninhabited tropical islands in Indonesia and the Philippines alone, almost twice as many as all the islands in the Caribbean. But the biggest money is to be made in drawing hordes of tourists together to one location, whether it be a casino resort in Singapore, an ancient temple in Cambodia, a giant theme park in China or the latest super-cruise ships. “Right now, users search for information,” Qian said. “Going forward, we want the right information, the relevant information, to be pushed to them, so they don’t even need to look for it. That’s the essential goal.”