China: allowing outbound medical travel

After nearly three years, and to the relief of many countries relying on medical tourism, China is finally opening up.  Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand are expected to benefit the most in 2023.

Chinese visitors around the world contributed US$253 billion to the global economy in 2019, so the recovery of the Chinese tourism sector is very welcome.  But many counties have imposed travel restrictions with COVID testing for Chinese travellers although none are banning Chinese citizens.

China has removed quarantine requirements and is again issuing passports.

Asia-Pacific destinations are expected to rebound when Chinese outbound travel resumes. While it is too early to judge 2023 numbers or destinations, but from airline booking data the key destinations are nearby countries including Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand.

Tourists from Mainland China will prefer short-haul destinations in Asia such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.  All of these used to get many Chinese medical and health tourists. These destinations offer proximity, effective pandemic control, responsible destination management, high vaccination rates and good healthcare facilities. Thailand expects to see arrivals from China rise from about 50,000 this month to 90,000 by March.

Less popular are long haul destinations including the UK, USA, Australia and the USA, but historically they had few Chinese medical tourists.

Before the pandemic, China was the world’s largest outbound travel market by departure numbers and spending. In 2019, Chinese travellers took 154.6 million trips abroad and spent nearly US$255 billion, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization  (UNWTO). Medical tourism numbers are less clear, but IMTJ estimates they exceeded a million.

Chinese travellers are now gravitating towards small groups and independent travel, rather than large tours.

China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI) Analytics provides the most reliable dataset for the 80 key destinations visited by Chinese outbound travellers for the past decade and forecast for the coming years. It includes quarter-by-quarter breakdowns of total numbers of arrivals, age groups, gender distribution, education level groups, residence in China according to city tier, the purpose of visit, organisation of travel and accommodation distribution according to star ratings, all in terms of percentage, year-on-year change and in terms of absolute numbers, with info graphics and an executive analysis of the main reasons and trends provided. 2023 predictions are awaited.

A new survey by travel analyst, Dragon Trail, conducted in November for its latest Chinese Traveller Sentiment Report shows a significant rise in the number of people eager to travel overseas.  When asked the reason for travel, 8.6% stated medical and wellness travel.