By Mark Taner*
A visit to a vineyard like that of the Tibetan village of Cizhong in Yunnan Province, provides an overview of how China has evolved over the past two years since its borders were closed. The boutique vineyard is simply breathtaking, nestled next to a historic Catholic church built by French missionaries over a hundred years ago, amidst secluded mountains and above the steep gorges of the Lancang (Mekong) River.
The vineyard and the Chinese people who visit it are a far cry from the people who once made up nearly all of China’s wine tourists, arriving by bus at vast wineries across China’s wine regions. The China Skinny team visited one of the best-known wineries a few years ago, housed in a huge but poorly executed replica of a Bordeaux chateau. Much of the tour involved propaganda-style videos in the venue’s theater, with the main focus being that the wine was “a triple-A brand.” The wine itself wasn’t great and the tour guides didn’t feel overly engaged or authentic, going through the constant arrivals of armies of corporate visitors.
Visitors to wineries like Cizhong and other boutique wineries across China are representative of a new wave of wine consumers in China who have sophisticated wine tastes and knowledge. In the past, Chinese wine lovers mainly traveled to vineyards in Europe, Australasia and North America. But with borders closed, these enthusiasts sought wines closer to home and, in many cases, wine-growing and related tourism infrastructure is catching up.
There are broader trends at play than the rise of fancy cellar doors and more palatable wine. Chinese consumers are increasingly avoiding old-fashioned “less wealthy” traitsand continue to become more sophisticated in their tastes and better informed in virtually every consumer category.
Coffee is a very visible example. In 2018, Starbucks owns 70% of coffee sales in China, a rate unmatched by any single brand in any other major category in China. Cafes have since exploded in China, with Shanghai now hosting more cafes than any other city in the world, and similar per capita rates to Tokyo and not far behind London. Major international chains such as Starbucks and Costa, only represent 35% of the city’s cafeswith the rise of local and international boutique roasters such as Manner and Blue Bottle erode Starbucks’ dominance. Like wine and coffee, there are increasingly sophisticated consumers demanding increasingly refined products, many of whom are willing to pay a premium for domestic and imported brands that hit the mark.
From a tourism perspective, more authentic wine tours are representative of how China’s domestic tourism has upped its game since the first hit of the pandemic, providing many services for which Chinese people mainly traveled overseas in the past. It’s through almost everything, from adrenaline vacations to luxury shopping, as we have seen since the rise of Hainan.
The current Omicron virus strain in China appears to be much harder for China to contain than previous outbreaks, with China sees its first Covid deaths in over a year. Depending on how things are contained, the outbreak may provide an impetus for China to start thinking about opening up, as we’ve seen with formerly zero covid countries like Australia and New -Zealand. When they do, more Chinese leaving the coasts will help tourism and education operators globally, and indirectly build more affinity with foreign brands they see and try abroad. Negative sentiment towards other countries is also likely to improve, as indicated by the 7% more Chinese trust in the US president if they have personal contact with the country.
When Chinese tourists and students return, they will not be the same as when we last saw them in early 2020. Their expectations have increased, and so will their alternatives back home. The window between now and the opening of China is a good time for tourism and education businesses to prepare. This will ensure that when Chinese visitors come, they will have the best experience and be advocates – rather than critics – of your offerings. Many international agents and tour operators have moved on to other things, digital platform preferences have changed and policies have changed, so there is work to be done both at home and on the ground in China.