Chinese tourists are the most traveled in the world and are promoting a global revolution that has just begun. "Only 6% of the population has a passport and the Government issues 10 million new documents every year. It does not exist, nor will exist in the next 50 years, a market with as much attraction and potential as the Chinese ", advances Rafael Cascales, president of the Forum of China-Spain Tourism (Fotec).
It is impossible to find a better place to see in real time how the Chinese tourism industry behaves than the Ctrip Control Center, the main online agency in China and the second in the world by volume of operations and revenues. The videowalls that cover the wall of this generous room, located in a futuristic Zaha Hadid building in Shanghai, reflect the transactions that are closing at that time the 300 million users of Ctrip. The data that runs through the screens reveals where customers are, where they travel and how they travel. The system incorporates algorithms specifically designed by its engineers to predict demand.
That prediction is shown as a line that runs sometimes parallel, and sometimes superimposed, to which real transactions are delineated. But it's amazing how close they are always. The greater the volume of data they have, the more accurate the prediction is. Ctrip shares these predictions with its service providers -especially with hotels- to adapt their prices to the situation.
The big data also serves Ctrip to offer complementary services to those who have been hired, according to the user's history. A traveler with a high purchasing power can be sent a discount for a restaurant with a Michelin star and another one less affluent will be offered tourist attractions. At the head of all this is one of the most powerful women in China, Jane Sun, one of the first Chinese students who could be trained in the United States, who decided to stay in Silicon Valley fascinated by the Internet world and ended up working in a still unknown company called Alibaba.
As CEO, it has been proposed to lead two revolutions: the technological and the gender. "We are convinced that technology will revolutionize the tourism sector, and that is why we have thousands of engineers working on sophisticated systems that have become one of the great advantages of Ctrip," he says.
Conquer the world
"After having proven its worth in the domestic market, it is logical that we want to exploit it beyond China, because ours is a global business in which the infrastructure we have created can easily be put at the service of the public anywhere in the world. ", Explains Sun to EL PAÍS Retina. To make matters worse, Ctrip out of China has expanded with the purchase of Skyscanner and Trip.com and participation in the Indian MakeMyTrip.
Not in vain, Ctrip has been a pioneer in the development of a mobile super app that brings together all the services that the company can offer: from traditional airline tickets to limousine services. Mobile devices are already used in 80% of the transactions that the company closes, and bots have begun to replace human beings in customer service tasks.
"The chat integrated into the app is the first filter through which questions and requests from users pass. In many cases, the bot itself is able to give a satisfactory answer or perform the relevant operations and the client does not even realize that he is talking to a robot, "explains the Chinese executive.
Ctrip has also proposed transcending the scope of software and artificial intelligence to make a leap to hardware: it has begun to design robots for hotels – from those that manage check-in to those in charge of room service – and even is investing in the development of Boom's supersonic flights. "They will be planes that travel at three times the speed of sound and about 80,000 feet," says co-founder and current president of the company, James Liang. "I think we'll see them operating in what's left of our lives, because they've been functioning for half a century. Now the demand is much higher than then and the technology is there, so we are convinced that supersonic flights will return in 10 or 20 years and make the planet smaller. "
In 2018 Chinese citizens made some 162 million trips abroad.
- + 11%. It was the annual growth of international travel.
- 260,000. millions of dollars spent in 2017.
- 180 It will be the millions of Chinese tourists who cross the border in 2019 (according to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute).
For gender equality
Although these advances can give Ctrip the technological leadership of the sector on a global scale, Sun has proposed to use its power also to bring about major changes in an area in which China is still far behind: the access of women to positions of responsibility . Because, despite the fact that the official discourse of Chinese communism gives it "half the sky", very few arrive so high. In fact, China ranks 103 out of a total of 149 on gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum. And Sun has experienced the discrimination suffered by women.
"I remember that the first time I traveled to Japan as head of the financial department of Ctrip, our partners in that country bowed to our president, but they did not even shake my hand because they assumed I was the assistant. Something similar happened to me in Silicon Valley during a dinner for entrepreneurs. Many asked me where my husband was, assuming that I was there only as a consort. I do not think they tried to hurt my feelings, they did it because they did not think it possible that a young Asian woman could reach an executive position, "he recalls.
"In China the situation is even more difficult because it has not advanced so much in gender equality. Therefore, I believe that society has to drive a profound change and that companies must be involved in it, "says Sun, who leads by example. On Ctrip, instead of threatening to dismiss women who become pregnant, the company offers a free taxi service from the sixth month of pregnancy. "When the child is born, we offer a welcome check of 800 yuan (105 euros) which is supplemented by an aid of 3,000 yuan (385 euros) as a subsidy for education," he adds.
Sun is hopeful that these progressive business policies will spread throughout the country thanks to the growing competition to attract talent: "I have also asked for the hiring of newly graduated young women to be increased. And, as I know that many are torn between having a child or develop their professional career, we have decided to offer them the possibility of freezing their ova for free in case they prefer to delay motherhood, so they do not have to make a hasty decision. "
However, Ctrip is still a long way from achieving the equality that its CEO is looking for. Although women already account for more than 50% of the workforce, most work in call centers, which accumulate less qualified jobs and more threatened by bots. As positions rise in the company's pyramid organization, the weight of women is falling: they occupy 40% in intermediate positions and only one third of executives. "We have a lot to do, but at some point we have to start," says the executive.
Be sustainable or die
Sun also avoids the responsibility that Ctrip has in the massification of tourism, whose most unpleasant face is shown in cities such as Barcelona or Venice, where neighbors are up in arms to try to stop the gentrification that comes with other companies in the new economy , like Airbnb. "The key is in sustainability and good regulation. Each country is experiencing a different situation and should look for the ideal formula to benefit from tourism without succumbing to success, "explains Sun.
In Asia, the boom in Chinese tourism has also caused friction, and countries such as Thailand or the Philippines, where they are already the nationality that most visits, have decreed the closure of some of the most visited places: Maya Bay, popularized by the movie The Beach, will prohibit the access of tourists until the ecosystem recovers from its great impact, and the island of Boracay, which reopened at the end of last year after six months of profound transformation, does not want to hear of the arrival of more travelers.
"The Chinese tourism supposes a great economic opportunity, but it brings a problem related to the enormous population of the country, that overflows the infrastructure of the places that become popular". Sun is convinced that this is solved by traveling more, not less. "We try to educate travelers and, on the other hand, the profile of the Chinese tourist is changing a lot. The groups remain primordial, but they grow much less than the independent tourists, who are the youngest and most respectful and those who promote more enriching exchanges ", concludes Sun.
"Spain is an extraordinarily beautiful country that has great potential in the Chinese market." Jane Sun, CEO of Ctrip, is clear about this. "It's very diverse, rich in history and has excellent cuisine," he adds. However, according to Ctrip data, Spain is only the fourth favorite destination of Chinese tourists in Europe.
And that is the only one that has two of the ten most admired tourist attractions of the Old Continent: the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Sagrada Familia of Barcelona. The Ciudad Condal is the only Spanish city that reaches the top 10 of the most attractive European cities for the Chinese public.
"The Chinese who visit Europe for the first time do not have Spain as a priority, but those who wish to deepen in the continent," explains Sun. "I think there are missing guides and signs in Chinese, especially for the older ones, and establishments that are better suited to the particularities of this tourist," he adds. Perhaps that is why Chinese tourists give Spain the eighth place as tourist services in Europe, behind theoretically less friendly countries, such as France, Austria, Portugal or the Czech Republic.
"We have started the promotion of Spain in China late and with insufficient resources," criticizes Rafael Cascales, president of the Spain China Tourism Forum. "We are still far behind in direct air connectivity. And there has been a deficient management in the issuance of visas, which makes it a calvary for a Chinese to come to our country, "Cascales enumerates.
However, 718,000 Chinese citizens visited our country in 2017 – 23.3% more than the previous year – and everything points to the fulfillment of the objective set by the China Tourism Plan at the beginning of the decade: reaching one million in 2020. Ctrip sees a remarkable boom in personalized trips to Spain. The gastronomic tours and the dives that combine tourism and flamenco learning triumph.