Hitting the road again: How Chinese travelers are thinking about their first trip after COVID-19

McKinsey 14 May 2020 12:00

The global travel sector has taken a catastrophic hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to keep most of the world in lockdown, and away from resorts and tourist hotspots. As China’s economy emerges from the stasis engendered by coronavirus containment measures, it is important to understand how long it will take for consumers to regain the confidence to leave their homes for leisure travel. With this in mind, we surveyed 1,600 travelers in eight Chinese cities about their attitudes to leaving home for leisure, as the first wave of a broader COVID-19 Travel Sentiment Survey.

Respondents in our survey had taken a domestic or international leisure travel trip within the last year, and were based in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Xi’an, Xiamen, and Wuhan. Data were collected from April 13 to April 18. Where relevant, we compare responses with our 2019 McKinsey Consumer Sentiment Survey.

We asked respondents when they are likely to take their next trip, who is planning to travel, and with whom, where they want to go, and what they want to do (Exhibit 1). The upshot is that though various measures of economic activity are on the rise in China, the rebound in leisure travel sentiment has so far been conservative: 13 percent of travelers report that they plan to take a trip in the next three months. Intracity leisure trips are more popular, with slightly more than a third of respondents expecting to increase local leisure trips in the next month. Most travelers will continue to stay close to home; less than 5 percent expect to increase their overnight domestic leisure trips.

While overall sentiment among Chinese consumers has recovered rapidly over the past several weeks—with 36 percent of consumers optimistic about China’s economy, when it comes to travel, the rebound in confidence appears to be slower. The survey also reveals several important insights into the way leisure travel behavior and sentiment is shifting in the wake of the peak of the outbreak in China.

Most respondents do not feel safe enough to travel for leisure, but sentiment is quickly improving. Overall, between 85-90 percent of respondents felt that in early April it was “not safe at all” to leave their hometown for leisure travel. However, working in the local area is now seen to be “somewhat safe” (62 percent), while 36 percent of potential travelers say they will travel within their cities more frequently in the coming month. Sentiment towards domestic travel is also improving, with the percentage of respondents that consider it “not safe at all” to travel in the next month falling to 50-60 percent of respondents (compared with early April).

4. Food and family destinations popular despite virus concerns. While travelers plan to avoid crowded tourist spots, visiting scenic attractions outdoors ranked as the most popular type of trip. Food- and family-themed destinations were also a top-three choice, with shopping falling to the bottom of the list (Exhibit 4).

5. Leisure travel groups are shrinking. Prior to COVID-19, 66 percent of travelers planned to travel with family, either with their parents, or even with family members from across three generations. In a large reversal, 69 percent of respondents now plan to travel solo, or with their significant other, compared with 30 percent pre-epidemic (Exhibit 5).

Guided tour packages have fallen dramatically in popularity, with only 10 percent of travelers saying they would take a group tour for their next trip; 68 percent said it was impossible to even consider the option (Exhibit 6). In the pre-COVID-19 period, 28 percent of travelers preferred tour formats with groups of 10 people or more. Smaller groups (<10 people)="" are="" now="" more="" popular,="" with="" 31="" percent="" of="" respondents="" likely="" to="" choose="" this="" as="" an="" option,="" nearly="" triple="" the="" percentage="" observed="" in="">

Implications for players in the leisure travel value chain

While the recovery from COVID-19 will take some time—particularly for travel—it is promising to see early indicators of improving sentiment in China. While international travel will be subject to regulatory restrictions and quarantine challenges for the foreseeable future, domestic options are increasingly perceived as safe. As the “first wave” of travelers begin to post their experiences on social media, this trend may accelerate in China—offering hope for the global travel industry as a whole.

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