A visible increase in interest in sports and outdoor activities over the last decade has changed the dynamics of the outbound Chinese tourism market and as a result, more Chinese travelers plan overseas holidays in line with opportunities to watch or take part in high-profile sporting events.
“Sport tourism in China is certainly growing and it is simply a reflection of changes within China itself,” said Oliver Sedlinger, a Beijing-based international tourism consultant at Sedlinger and Associates.
“So many people now have taken on sports like running and hiking, and if you translate the interest of consumers in China, there is definitely an influence on the outbound travel behaviors too.”
According to the Chinese Athletics Association, an upsurge in marathon running in China saw the country hold 1,581 marathons and relevant sport events (road races of more than 800 participants and cross-country races of more than 300 participants) in 2018, with 5.38 million entries. By comparison, in 2010 just 13 marathons were held in the country.
Seldinger said that as more Chinese have enjoyed a certain amount of domestic running experience over the years, it is natural that they would want to pursue such activities abroad.
In major international races, marathon fever has seen Chinese participation hit a new high. This year a record number of 2,336 Chinese runners completed the Berlin Marathon, up from 2,131 in 2018, and at this year’s Chicago Marathon, there were 1,978 Chinese entrants, 1,790 of whom finished the race, with an average completion time of 4 hours 29 minutes 40 seconds.
Last weekend, there were Chinese runners among the 22,500 participating in the 40th Dublin Marathon. The long-time race director Jim Aughney said “Five to 10 years ago, we would not have had any participants from outside Ireland, but this year 23 Chinese registered for the race, of which seven addresses were coming from abroad.”
Industry pundits have noted that there is a major and irreversible shift in how Chinese people engage with activities when traveling abroad.
James Kenny, Tourism Ireland’s China manager, said the popular image of groups that visit many destinations in a number of days, seeing most things out of the coach window, is changing.
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Another outdated stereotype is that Chinese travelers do not like physical activity and only do sightseeing and shopping, but with the new generation, this is clearly changing.
“The affluent young Chinese outbound traveler is very discerning, very well educated and very experience-driven,” said Kenny. “They are leading the way in setting new trends and sports-related tourism is one of those trends.”
Research by Resonance Consulting shows that 45 percent of younger Chinese travelers would like to take part in an athletic competition on a future holiday, up from just 14 percent currently doing so.
In China, there are many agencies and platforms such as Qunar, functioning as a platform to organize overseas running trips and provide convenience for avid Chinese runners.
James Kennell, principal lecturer in tourism at the University of Greenwich in London, said: “Mass participation events like marathons offer tourists the chance to combine wellness and urban tourism. They can be built in to a longer holiday and add a sense of achievement to a visit, as well as a great way to see a destination.
“Attractions and destinations are now thinking about how to create meaningful experiences for Chinese visitors, rather than just about what to sell to them. Lots of destinations are now using technology and new interpretive methods to attract Chinese tourists, and finding narratives to help engage them.”
Sport-related tourism has emerged as a significant element of global tourism. In the UK, this has been really noticeable in the Premier League, where more and more Chinese fans are coming to watch soccer teams that have developed big followings in China.
According to tourism agency VisitBritain’s International Football Research, Chinese fans surveyed showed the greatest intention with 92 percent intending to visit the UK within the next two years.