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November 30, 2015

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China’s elderly on the move

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THE tourism market for elderly people is growing rapidly as more of China’s population progress into the over-60 group. The number of Chinese aged over 60 had reached 212 million by the end of last year and is expected to exceed 400 million by 2033, reflecting annual increases of almost 10 million.

Concurrent with this wave of ageing, more than 5 million elderly Chinese go travelling each year, generating tourism revenue of over 10 billion yuan (US$1.6 billion), according to, a statistics and analysis website.

More than 47 percent of China’s elderly have travelled long distance and 70 percent say tourism is one important way to improve and enrich their retirement.

“The market is very big with huge potential,” said Zhong Hui, a director of China Association of Travel Services.

He noted that in the densely-populated downtown areas of cities like Shanghai and Beijing, senior residents account for a quarter of the total population. “Gray-hair travel might be a new growth point for China’s tourism industry,” he said.

Fan Min, president of Ctrip, China’s one-stop travel agency in discount hotel reservations, cheap airline tickets and package tours, estimated that senior citizens will become the China tourism market’s main force within 10 years. “By that time, the number will have grown to 300 million,” Fan said.

In line with these industry predictions, there is evidence the country’s gray-hair tourism trend has already taken off.

Company director Han Tie said his Jiuzhou Fengxing Travel Agency hasn’t done any promotions among older clients, but more than 70 percent of his groups going to Russia and East Europe are over 60 years old.

“It’s probably because people at this age have some special attachment to those countries. They watched their movies, listened to the songs and read poems when they were young,” Han said.

Cruise tours have become another “hotspot” for seniors in recent years. A Tongcheng Travel ( report said more than 81 percent of graying tourists chose to take a cruise in the first half of this year.

“Cruise touring is more comfortable, laid-back and slow-paced. Old people can enjoy the scenery, food and shopping without rushing around or carrying heavy luggage,” said Huang Ruiling from Costa Crociere.

The State Council emphasized the gray-hair market in August in its “Guideline to Develop Tourism Investment and Consumption.”

Savvy investors also have seen the opportunities. The Taiwan tourism industry has started an official website tailor-made for China mainland’s elderly travelers. And its travel operators cooperate with local agencies to set up branch offices on the mainland to promote their gray-hair tour products.

“The major force of tourists to Taiwan is old people. They often choose eight-day/seven-night around-the-island tour packages,” said Lin Wei from the Taiwan Straits Tourism Association’s Beijing office. “But it’s still a little rushed for old people, so we’re now developing some high-end, in-depth products.”

Most other overseas tourism destinations, however, such as America, Europe and Japan, are yet to develop an appetite for China’s gray-hair market.

At the same time, many domestic travel agencies don’t have any development plans, though they’ve seen the potential and sense the opportunity.

“Old people need more service, including medical support, and they are often fussy about service and price,” said a travel agency’s director. “We know it’s a huge market, but currently we don’t have any products for gray-hair clients.”

Zhang Jing, who shifted from working in the aged-care industry to tourism, pointed out that many tour guides working for groups specializing in elderly travel don’t know what old people really need or how they think.

Zhang’s Nanbeichao Travel Agency focuses on the gray-hair tourism market and he organizes regular training for his staff in nursing homes. “I want my colleagues to talk with old people, get to know them and be friends with them,” Zhang said. Many of Nanbeichao’s old clients are well-educated, eager and curious to learn new things, and have good retirement pensions.

“If we only offer old people normal tourism products, it’s not real gray-hair tourism,” Zhang said. “Care and learning are what they need.” He has set up WeChat platforms for his aged clients, sharing news and health care tips, and organizes off-line events for them such as Chinese calligraphy and painting classes.

Nanbeichao’s WeChat account has attracted more than 70,000 active followers and they’re leaving messages from 5am to midnight. “All our tourism products are B2C for old people and they always sell out quickly,” Zhang said.

What the elderly like:

The following three members of the gray-travel community talk about their travel preferences and likes and dislikes on-the-road:

Pan Yiming

A: I usually arrange two trips a year, one in spring and the other in autumn. Each trip would take about 20 days. During the first several years, I mostly travelled abroad but later I found many Chinese sceneries were even more beautiful than overseas. So in recent years, I’ve travelled mainly in China.

Q: What are the main factors you take into consideration before travelling, such as cost, climate, physical status or others?

A: As a big fan of photography, the place’s scenery and culture are what I’m concerned about most. I stayed one month in Xinjiang this September and I was most impressed by its magnificent landscape, colorful exotic cultures and people’s hospitality. I was captivated by the beauty of Xinjiang by reading a book when I was very young. Now that I’ve got time and money, I can capture its beauty with my own eyes and my own lenses. It’s like a dream coming true. Cost is the least thing I would consider if I decide to go.

Q: What difficulties do you think old people encounter when travelling?

A: Physical status is one thing that old people should take into consideration. I’m 67 but, frankly speaking, I don’t think I’m old. I went to Tibet this year. Before the trip, I was worried if I could make it. My doctor gave his advice: take it slow. So I stayed in Lhasa for three days to make myself adapt to the environment first and then set off to other regions. Everything went fine and I even climbed to the 5,000-meter campsite. So preparation is very important and if necessary, go to doctor for professional advice.

Q: What do you expect to get from travelling?

A: I love in-depth travel which is free and flexible and gets me close to local life and people. Most of my pictures are about people, instead of landscapes. I travelled around Xinjiang with my wife for a month in September. Before the trip, my Xinjiang friends told me it was not safe to go, but I insisted. In Kashgar, you can experience the real lives of ethnic groups. We knocked on the doors of hospitable and kind-hearted local people and talked happily with them. Today we still keep in touch on WeChat. The trip taught me that if we send out goodwill messages, we will get the same back.

Q: What are your requirements in terms of catering, accommodation and transport?

A: I pick a clean, safe hotel, even if it’s a little expensive, for the first several days in a strange place. But after I come to know about the place, I shift to a more local, exotic accommodation. But I will never choose a luxury hotel, not necessary at all. My wife and I are not fussy about the food. In mountainous regions, the cuisine is always green and clean, which is good for old people. As for transport, we prefer to rent a car but otherwise we are both good walkers.

Q: How do you book air tickets and hotels?

A: I book air tickets and hotels by myself on the Internet. I make the travel plans and also arrange the daily routes. I can fix up everything. I’m telling you, I’m still young and smart.

Q: What’s your next travel destination?

A: Next May I’m going to South America with my photographer friends and we’ll go through countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

Cao Fan

A: I travel at least twice each year, one long-distance and the other short-distance, both abroad. The long-distance trip often takes 15 to 20 days and is with my photographer friends. We might get up early to catch the sunrise and go to bed late to see the stars. It’s normally tiring, but rewarding. As for the short-distance trip, I would go with my family on holidays to enjoy the happy bonding time. It’s often slow-paced and relaxing.

Q: What are the main factors you take into consideration before travelling, such as cost, climate, physical status or others?

A: The destination’s culture, traditions and people’s way of life attract me most. Beautiful scenery comes next.

I think the 60s is one’s golden age when one has the time, money, knowledge, and curiosity to know more about the world and still have a strong physique to enjoy it. Of course I would consider the cost, but that is not the main factor.

Q: What difficulties do you think old people encounter when travelling?

A: The biggest problem is language. I love to talk to local people, but in foreign countries, I’m almost dumb. I don’t understand the menu or the traffic signs. What’s more important, I might miss some interesting local stories.

Q: What do you expect to get from travelling?

A: Travelling greatly opens my eyes, gives me enough physical exercise, makes new friends and teaches me to be tolerant of different people’s ways of life. I went to Germany this year. Though the country was dealing with a refugee influx, everything seemed in perfect order. India also impressed me. Some might be prejudiced about it but I liked its people and its religious culture. In front of a temple, I saw a beggar, about 10 years old, pouring half of the money he’d begged into the temple’s donation box. This shocked me greatly. It would be inconceivable in China. Though India is not that developed in some ways, it is a country with strong faith and hope. So you see, travelling always gives me new angles to look at the world.

Q: What are your requirements in terms of catering, accommodation and transport?

A: If I go with photographers, I often choose simple, clean accommodation with shower facilities. As we’re always on the road, clean, convenient and safe are the key words. But if I go with my family, we always stay in five-star hotels with rich breakfasts. I’m still fit for my age, so normally I only take band-aids, gastrointestinal medicine and insect repellents.

Q: How do you book air tickets and hotels?

A: For a long-distance photography trip, we’ll work with a travel agency to provide professional advice and develop a tailor-made package to meet our needs and budget. For the family trip, my daughter can arrange everything. Sometimes I try to DIY the whole trip. For instance, I arranged the trip to Qinghai Province all by myself, from booking the air tickets, calling the hotel owners one-by-one and paying them online.

Lu Meiling

A: Before my retirement, I had many overseas lectures and seminars every year. Normally after each seminar, we would have a two- or three-day trip in that country. Now I’ve got time for myself. I usually travel with my husband or friends. Each year we’ll have two trips, one long-distance, such as to America or Europe, the other one shorter to neighboring Asian countries. I mainly travel abroad because I want to see more foreign countries before I get really old. I think I’m a “young old person” now.

Q: What are the main factors you take into consideration before travelling, such as cost, climate, physical status or others?

A: The destination country’s scenery, civilization and culture would be my biggest concerns. I prefer to visit places I’ve never been to. The country’s political stability is also a main factor. I planned to go to Russia and Turkey this year, but neither seemed safe so I readjusted my travel list. Next year I’m going to Europe, including France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. With President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Britain, there’ll be more preferential policies for Chinese tourists so it is also on my must-go list. Whether the country has a sound medical system and good public facilities for old people is also very important. Cost is the least thing I would take into consideration.

Q: What difficulties do you think old people encounter when travelling?

A: The biggest problem might be the language. Many old Chinese can’t speak English, and they are often shy, not comfortable in communicating with foreigners. Physical status is another problem. I’m a doctor and most of my friends are doctors too, so we might have more medical knowledge, but we’ll still carefully assess our physical condition before each trip.

Q: What do you expect to get from travelling?

A: I’m not a take-a-snapshot-and-go tourist. I love to stay longer in one country to get to know more about the place’s traditions, customs and cultures. Last year my friends and I visited seven countries within 11 days, which was pretty exhausting without any in-depth travel. If I’ve got enough time, I prefer to visit a local art exhibition, enjoy a concert, go hiking or have a picnic in a countryside park with locals.

Q: What are your requirements in terms of catering, accommodation and transport?

A: I like to try different cuisine styles in different countries. However as we are old people, we prefer to eat green and fresh food with a light taste. As for accommodation, my requirement is at least a three-star hotel. But, I occasionally try the luxury ones, such as a hotel with natural hot springs which is good for health. Old people do not act as quickly as the young, so I prefer a place with slow pace of life and good, easy traffic.


Q: How do you book air tickets and hotels?

A: Sometimes I go to the big, quality travel agencies, and sometimes my children help to organize. I think I’ll try book online one day in the future.

Q: Do you prefer DIY tours or package tours?

A: I like DIY tours which are more free and flexible. If we’re travelling with many friends, like eight to 10 people, we might take a group package tour arranged by a travel agency.


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