More than a record 6m from China expected to head abroad over Chinese New Year

Chinese tourists walking through the Ginza district of Tokyo, Japan, on Feb 16, 2015.
Chinese tourists walking through the Ginza district of Tokyo, Japan, on Feb 16, 2015.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

BEIJING/HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Ms Shi Ying will not be making the traditional pilgrimage back to Shanghai to celebrate the Chinese New Year holiday with her extended family. Instead, they are all going to Japan for shopping and sightseeing.

That new custom lets her family bypass the mobs, clogged roads and subways, lousy customer services - and boredom - that can mark holidays at home. During the past few celebrations, Ms Shi and her relatives left China for Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the United States.

"The last thing my parents want for the Chinese New Year is a cheerless holiday with the three of us staying home in Shanghai," said Ms Shi, 30, who works for a non-governmental organisation in Beijing. "Going overseas during the Spring Festival costs about the same as going to some domestic tourist spots."

The essence of China's seven-day holiday, also called Spring Festival, is morphing as rising incomes and an expanding network of international flights prompt more people to go abroad - the equivalent of Americans choosing Bermuda over the Midwest for Thanksgiving.

Outbound travel for the holiday break is expected to top a record 6 million passengers, with airlines hauling near-full loads to Japan, South Korea and South-east Asia.

"Chinese New Year is a major international peak for the Chinese airlines," said Ms Steve Saxon, a Shanghai-based partner at consultant McKinsey & Co. "For many, this is one of the only two opportunities to take a long holiday during the year."

The Spring Festival shuts down the world's second-biggest economy for a week as hundreds of millions of factory and office workers leave their adopted homes in Shenzhen or Beijing to reconnect with their ancestral ones, often on the opposite side of the country. Thousands more expatriates return.

This year's celebration, from Jan 27 through to Feb 2, will see the biggest mass migration of people on Earth. More than 414 million Chinese will travel in planes and trains - as if everyone in the European Union was on the move.

About 58.3 million people are expected to fly, representing a 10 per cent increase from last year, according to estimates by the Civil Aviation Administration of China. Chinese airlines generate about 20 per cent of their revenue during this period, Mr Saxon said.

Chinese will travel to 174 destinations outside mainland China for an average of 9.2 days during the holiday period, according to online travel service International.

"Any airline should be able to swim in money during a Chinese travelling holiday," said Mr Will Horton, a Hong Kong-based analyst at CAPA Centre for Aviation.

Fueling those excursions is an economy growing annually by at least 6.7 per cent since 1990, giving people more money to spend. Disposable income for urban households rose 165 per cent from 2006 to 2015, reaching about 31,195 yuan (S$6,453), according to China's National Bureau of Statistics.

Instead of going back to her hometown in the north-east China forest, editor Xi Chunhui is going to Macau, Singapore and Hong Kong for 11 days with a friend.

"The Spring Festival celebration is the same old thing every year at home," said Xi, 27, an editor for an internet portal in Beijing. "I don't think me not being there with them will kill the mood."

Going sightseeing abroad is also a consequence of the government's decades-long policy restricting most families to one child, noted Ms Catherine Lim, a Singapore-based analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. A more-affluent younger generation now wants to see the world, she said.

"When your entire family size shrinks, there really isn't much to do" at home, Ms Lim said. "They want to spend more money - particularly the younger generation - on experiencing new destinations rather than buying the biggest Hermes bag."

China is the biggest source of overseas travellers in the world, with 128 million people spending US$292 billion (S$414.08 billion) on their trips in 2015, according to the World Tourism Organisation.

That has been a boon to the nation's airlines, with demand running so high that discounts are ending as many as 50 days before takeoff, according to The top-dollar tickets help carriers make up for the massive price cuts offered during slow seasons.

China Southern Airlines, Asia's biggest carrier, added nearly 3,600 flights during this peak travel season - and expanded services to Australia and New Zealand, the airline said. Subsidiary Xiamen Airlines is adding more than 100 flights to South-east Asia destinations such as Bali and the Maldives, said manager Hu Nan of international business.

China Eastern Airlines, based in Shanghai, added 400 flights starting this month mostly to connect second-tier cities with Okinawa, Japan; Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand; and Cebu, the Philippines.

On the destination sides, Japan, Australia and even Israel are rolling out the welcome mats for Chinese tourists by offering multiple-year, multiple-entry visas to Chinese passport holders. The United Arab Emirates is going a step further by offering visas upon arrival, according to state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Chinese visitors to Japan jumped 28 per cent last year to 6.4 million - the most from any country, according to the Japan National Tourism Organisation.

When they arrived, they spent 1.47 trillion yen (S$18.4 billion), according to the separate Japan Tourism Agency. Chinese perceive Japanese electronics, luxury items and consumer goods like cosmetics and toothpaste to be of better quality than those made at home.

Ms Shi's family will fly to Japan on Jan 27 for a seven-day trip in Kyoto and Tokyo. Besides the tourist attractions, they plan some serious shopping - for cosmetics, clothes, rice cookers and high-technology toilet seats.

"My parents really get a kick out of travelling during the Chinese New Year," she said. "Let's hope I can cap my spending for the whole trip at 80,000 yuan."