Chinese tour groups can often be seen following guides clutching red flags in Japanese shopping districts, but organized tours may be losing their allure as travelers set out to go it alone.
Chinese tourists are increasingly spurning group travel to stop and smell the roses, so to speak, rather than following the beaten path.
Wang Yuting, 27, a Beijing native on a four-day trip to Japan during China’s National Day holiday, was traveling for the first time by himself. He earlier took part in two package tours. It is all about finding something exciting, he said.
“Even without a travel agent and a tour guide, I can still book a trip online, search locations with my iPhone, and look at social media to decide the specifics of my travel plan,” Wang said.
Wang said he gets travel ideas from friends on Weibo, China’s popular micro-blogging website, where travelers post selfie photos, status updates and videos.
Some people on group tours yearn for that freedom. Yang Li, 40, from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, came to Japan in a group tour ahead of the Christmas season. She was following a tour guide in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district and wished she had more time to relax and enjoy Japanese customs.
“I was dragged shopping today after enjoying a hot spring in Nagoya the previous day. If possible, I would like to come with my friends next time and have more time to enjoy Japan’s hot springs and traditional foods,” she said.
Tsuyoshi Kondo, president of Tokyo-based consulting company Friendly Japan, which targets Chinese tourists, said the number of independent travelers to Japan has been on the rise in the past few years.
“China’s free independent travelers to Japan have surged to nearly half the share in the last two or three years,” said Kondo.
The term “free independent travelers” refers to those who hop a flight and combine their own transport, lodgings and sightseeing into one price package.
“Although package tours still dominate the market of Chinese travelers to Japan, more Chinese people have started to realize that traveling independently is much more fun than going in groups, as they can go anywhere at any time they like,” Kondo said.
Kondo believes social media is behind the shift, adding that an increasing number of travel-friendly Chinese not only research and plan their trips online but also describe their experiences online.
More Chinese tourists are researching their trips by examining what others have written, he said.
Some of the comments on Weibo read: “Cherry blossoms are very beautiful in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, beyond my imagination,” “Hakodate’s morning fish market is awesome, a must-see attraction,” and “The sea of Okinawa is so clear, a blue that I’ve never seen before.”
Tan Xin, president of Act Travel Ltd., a Tokyo-based travel agency, said another major reason why independent Chinese are traveling independently is that it has become easier to obtain visas.
In January, the government relaxed requirements for high-income Chinese tourists by extending the validity of multiple-entry visas to five years from three years.
Bakugai — a phrase that literally means “explosive shopping” — is commonly used in Japan to describe the behavior of Chinese tourists in the nation’s department stores.
The rise in such visitors and the increasing appetite for individualized excursions are also transforming the business pattern of Tan’s travel agency.
“Although shopping still remains a key activity for many Chinese travelers to Japan, we see that more Chinese tourists are traveling independently to discover the country’s culture and local experiences.”
Tan said her company is trying to customize high-end tours to meet Chinese visitors’ demands.
Last year, the number of foreign travelers to Japan, buoyed by Chinese visitors, hit a record 19.73 million, just shy of the 20 million the Japanese government aims to achieve by 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympic Games.
The Japan National Tourism Organization says Chinese visitors doubled to 4.99 million. They comprised about a quarter of all tourists.
Kondo said a slowdown in the Chinese economy and turbulence on the Shanghai stock market since August have had no adverse effect on the flow of visitors from China to Japan.
He said the number of visitors from China will keep growing and may top 7 million by the time of the Olympics.
“The increase in independent travel will see a surge in Chinese repeaters, and therefore boost the number of Chinese tourists,” he said.