Chinese tourists travel more despite domestic economic growth slows down
High rise buildings are seen in a haze in Hong Kong
BEIJING (Reuters) – Soaring numbers of Chinese tourists packed onto flights out of the country is a sure sign that a fast-growing consumer class of around 130 million is not worried that the likely slowest year of economic growth since 1999 will sap their spending power.
Nearly 39 million mainlanders left China on overseas trips in the first half of 2012, roughly double on five years ago and evidence that a powerful consumer force – envisaged by the top leadership as the engine of economic expansion in a generation to come – may be bulking up faster than thought.
The question for investors is if a burgeoning bourgeoisie is now big enough to fully offset the economic impact of faltering foreign demand evident in data last week, when undershoots in July new bank lending, export, import and industrial output growth prompted analysts to start slicing into GDP forecasts.
Paul French, Shanghai-based chief China strategist at market intelligence consultancy Mintel, says the purest view of the domestic economy’s health always comes from the consumer.
"If consumers feel good about things they’ll spend. If they don’t feel good they’ll stop," he told Reuters. "Travel is a good indicator because people are travelling more and they are consuming a lot when they travel abroad."
Investors, facing world growth slowing to levels economists define as marking a global recession, are anxious for any sign that critical consumer mass may have already arrived in China.
Consumer spending in China has comfortably enjoyed double-digit growth for a decade, while exports have slowed to become a net drag on the economy in 2011 and in the first half of 2012.
Retail sales rose 13.1 percent year on year in July. Adjust for inflation and it was the second best month of the year.
But that’s not been enough to arrest six straight quarters of slowdown, with the latest Reuters poll forecasting economic growth to slide to 8 percent in 2012 from 9.2 percent in 2011.
While well below the 10 percent average of the last 30 years and a level that has previously prompted urgent action to create jobs, 8 percent remains above Beijing’s 7.5 percent target.
Meanwhile the labor market appears tight, with data showing the ratio of vacancies to workers near its highest in 10 years.
Evidence that consumers are rapidly getting stronger comes from the Geneva-based Digital Luxury Group, which reckons China’s travel market is already worth some $232 billion.
Its new World Luxury Index China Hotels report says Chinese travelers made 70 million overseas trips in 2011 to be pampered at spa resorts in Bali, to shop in Dubai, Paris and London, and to spend in Singapore and Hong Kong.
International Air Travel Association chief executive, Tony Tyler, says airlines will see an extra one billion travelers in a decade if average annual incomes in China hit $15,000.
Part of the proof is in the building going on. China, IATA says, plans to build 56 new airports nationwide before the end of 2016, with a further 16 relocated and 91 being expanded.
Chinese carriers made about half of all the $7.9 billion in profits earned by the global airline industry in 2011, according to IATA, which expects international traffic growth of 8-9 percent from China in the five years to 2015.
A Beijing-backed World Bank report envisages per capita income rising to $16,000 by 2030 from about $5,000 now, with two thirds of economic activity forecast to come from domestic consumption against less than 50 percent now.
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