Tourism agencies are turning to China's most popular social media app, WeChat, to try to get a bigger piece of the country's growing outbound tourism market.
The social messaging app launched an alliance on Tuesday with some 30 foreign tourism agencies, including the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), to encourage greater use of its in-app tools to reach Chinese visitors.
The number of tourists from China is rising steadily as the country develops. Last year, 149 million tourists travelled overseas, almost 15 per cent higher than the year before.
These tourists also spent more than US$130 billion (S$178 billion) overseas, leading some tourism experts to label Chinese visitors "walking wallets".
Thailand is the top foreign destination for Chinese tourists, while Singapore ranks seventh.
Dr Zhang Yang from the China Tourism Academy noted that the outbound tourism market has seen double-digit growth for the past 15 years. But the market is also changing as the Chinese become more well-travelled. Where they once travelled in tour groups, more are now opting for independent travel to "experience the local lifestyle", she said.
"When people travel abroad now, they find information on social platforms including WeChat. In the past, they travelled with travel agencies, but now they like to plan their trips themselves," said Dr Zhang.
The WeChat app has more than 1.1 billion monthly active users, who use it for everything from paying bills, booking train and plane tickets to researching attractions.
It also allows for mini-programs, which are sub-applications, that can be customised for various purposes, such as buying coupons, travel insurance or serving as travel guides.
The industry grouping - Welcome with WeChat Alliance - aims to support foreign tourism agencies in developing tools to reach out to Chinese consumers.
It is the latest move from a Chinese company to make things easier for tourists, both local and foreign, after e-payment giants Alipay and WeChat Pay said this month that they planned to open up their e-payment services to foreigners visiting China.
WeChat pointed out on Tuesday that STB was the first foreign tourism agency that launched its own WeChat mini-program for Chinese visitors to Singapore in 2017. It has two WeChat accounts and three mini-programs catering to different types of visitors.
STB's Northern China area director Nicky Seet said at the launch in Beijing that agencies had to continually review and expand the way they communicate with visitors.
Last year, more than 3.4 million visitors from China were in Singapore, a 6 per cent increase from 2017. They were also the top spenders in Singapore last year, spending more than $3.9 billion.
While experts say they see great potential in the Chinese tourist market, issues ranging from the language barrier to lack of information about destinations remain common problems faced by Chinese tourists.
Germany's National Tourist Board director for China Li Zhaohui noted a dearth of Mandarin-speaking guides in Europe. She said technology could help solve the problem. For example, its mini-program could have audio guides and translation functions.