Auckland Airport is seeing a shift of Chinese travelers from organized groups to independents, who stay longer and spend more.

China Southern Boeing B787
Photo: China Southern

When travel markets open and new destinations are connected, it is not unusual to see more group travel get the ball rolling rather than independent travelers blazing the trail. It certainly happened back in the 1970s when mass travel from Japan to Australia and New Zealand first took off, and now the pattern has repeated itself with travelers from China.

Group travel is giving way to independents

Group travel is seen in the early stages of tourism because the travel company takes away all of the barriers that can make travelers feel apprehensive, such as language, customs, safety and organizing. However, as time rolls by and the word gets around that it’s not all that difficult, there is a shift to more independent travel, feeding the desire for more unique and personalized experiences.

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A Air New Zealand Boeing 787-9 flying low below the clouds.

Someone who follows these things is Auckland Airport’s chief customer officer, Scott Tasker, who recently shared his experiences at the TRENZ travel conference in New Zealand. He said that China has always been a country where consumer trends move extremely fast, but the shift to independent travel has quickened in the post-COVID era.

“That’s a very typical pattern we’re used to seeing as inbound tourism markets mature and was a trend we were seeing pre-pandemic but what’s different is the speed at which this is happening.

“Group travel is still important for newer, less experienced travelers and can help fill in the demand gaps during our quieter seasons, but we’re expecting this shift to independent travel to continue, fuelled by the internet reviews and social media content.”

In 2012 66% of Chinese travelers to New Zealand came in organized groups which declined to 37% in 2019, and the relevance to tourism operatives is that independent travelers stay longer and spend more. Tasker told the audience that the return of regular, direct air connections into China’s largest metropolitan areas unlocks a major market of high-value travelers for New Zealand (NZ).

China airline capacity is returning quickly

Seat capacity between China and NZ is currently at 78% of 2019 levels and is forecast to reach 93% by September. Tasker added:

“We’ve now got Air New Zealand and China Eastern operating daily into Shanghai and China Southern flying daily into Guangzhou, with Air China restarting its link with Beijing four times a week. Once we add in Hainan Airlines with its twice-a-week service [to Shenzhen] from next month, we’ll have 27 direct flights between Auckland and four major Chinese cities.”

Air China Airbus A350

Photo: Markus Mainka | Shutterstock

Before COVID, more than 400,000 visitors from China arrived in NZ annually, making China the second largest visitor marker behind Australia. Around 83% of Chinese visitors landed at Auckland Airport, with six airlines operating between the two countries. These were the five mentioned above plus Sichuan Airlines with flights from Chengdu. At the start of this month, both Air China and Air New Zealand announced increased services, with Air New Zealand going to a daily Boeing 787-9 service to Shanghai.

The numbers arriving from China are growing steadily now that direct flights have returned, but there are other signs that interest in the country is building. Tasker said potential visitors are researching online, watching social media recommendations from fellow Chinese travelers, and “taking a really considered approach to travel choices.” He added that:

“Great customer experience shared by an influential traveler with a strong online following has the potential to create some unique buzz that could reach millions.”

With that on the horizon, it’s not surprising that Air New Zealand is doing everything it can to get more aircraft into service, including leasing another Boeing 737-330ER.

Are our Kiwi readers seeing any signs of this travel pattern? Let us know in the comments.


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