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The Evolution of Leisure In China

 

Today Chinese society is in a flux. Both the economic growth as well as the pace of growth of the past 35 odd years has had a massive impact on not just on the economic wellbeing of the Chinese people but also on the society in general. With the increasing affluence levels, higher disposable incomes, access to new product categories and increasing integration into the wider world, has meant not only have the people’s lives changed but also the way they relax, unwind and spend their leisure time.

Unlike in the past where the favorite pastime of most Chinese people was confined to what was acceptable within the social realm, now the same has evolved with the changes in the society. What is acceptable and not acceptable is now more a domain of the individual with the focus firmly on more balanced, engaging and diversified lifestyle.

Consequently we observe evolution of leisure options beyond traditional restaurants, stroll and activities in the neighborhood parks and KTVs to leisure travel, health & beauty, shopping and even online indulgences. This evolution signifies a move away from more basic motivations of safety, nutrition (health) and tradition to more mature-exploration, experience, authenticity, and value proposition.

The Chinese government too has had a hand in this evolution. The government has pushed to increase domestic consumption by providing more days off for Chinese people to spend on leisure activities. In 1995, the government introduced 5-working-day week, providing people with 2 days a week of leisure and rest. In 1997, the golden week and the national day were introduced as additional measures to boost domestic spends. Finally, the new labor law in 2008 was enacted to provide yearly 5 days of paid leave to make Chinese people to connect more with their families and in the process boost the economy.

Explore and Experience

Traditionally for Chinese people, food (a major leisure indulgence) used to be more about nutrition and health. With increasing affluence and consequently travel becoming more common, food is becoming more about experience, authenticity and exploration. Cheese and regional wine are riding high on this wave. 94% of Chinese consumers say they have tried French cheese and were likely to eat some again. Definitely, times are evolving.

While travel on the other hand was previously considered as a leisure activity with a focus on destinations (been there, seen that), it has now shifted more to qualitative and “out-of-time” experience where people want to live the present moment, enjoy  the experience, explore and exchange.

A study conducted by IFOP has shown that Chinese people save for difficult times, for their children’s education and… for travel. In first tier-cities (Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou) travel even emerges as the primary motivation for saving.

Travelling agencies noticed this shift and have tried to seize this new market by offering for instance journeys focused on particular themes such as gastronomy, relaxation (cruise), or sport (hiking) and in the process work on people’s motivation of experience and explore.

Other emerging trends

The younger travelers focus more on independence when it comes to travel and we also see solo or non-tour group travelers on the increase. They are no longer interested just in running from one scenic/tourist spot to other and endure endless bus rides in the process. They now want to experience and live the moment.

Travel aside, we observe rise of health and beauty based leisure avenues. There is a common Chinese belief that to be successful in life, one needs to look good (and of course healthy). This belief is leading to increasing focus on keeping fit and also quick fixing perceived bodily negatives. This aspect is also seen part of leisure and Chinese people are going all for benefiting from options that cater to these needs. While the elderly have the gym and dance in public parks, most young people are hooked to the gym.

People are also opting to go abroad to seek medical attention. It may be for more serious medical conditions or for cosmetic surgeries. This trend has given rise to new travel trends such as medical tourism (e.g. plastic surgery). Countries like Korea, Thailand are hot destinations for Chinese people to travel to get medical attention and also in the process enjoy visiting the country.

Kings of Shopping

Shopping is considered an integral part of leisure activities of Chinese people. To them it’s more than buying. It’s an experience and a social activity. Rise of malls is an example of this trend that caters to these requirements. Chinese people spend a lot of time living the experience of shopping. For instance, when they want to buy a premium beauty product, it all starts with talking to each other (social occasion). It’s followed by an online search for information (personal engagement and involvement) and actual buying of the product in physical stores in China or abroad (experience). It’s not surprising that online channels are now trying to replicate the physical store experience on the website to engage more consumers.

At the same time, shopping malls are becoming a lifestyle and provide a wide range of services to enhance the shopping experience: game rooms, restaurants, beauty salons, and cinemas are much more numerous than in our malls.

Even when it comes to travel, shopping in the world’s biggest cities remain the top motivation irrespective of age or gender. The voracious appetite for shopping can be seen in duty free stores in the world’s major airports as well as high streets.

Digital

Talking about online, the digital revolution especially the rise of social media and e-commerce has had deep impact on the way Chinese people conduct their lives and also their leisure habits. Nowadays, it’s very common for Chinese people to explore leisure ideas, discuss travel plans, look out for promotions for hotels, book tours, all using just their smart phones. Smart phones have made information accessible in a magical way and the Chinese people are using it like no other people elsewhere. As a consequence, possibilities are endless and spend time on wechat or weibo is now considered as leisure.

In conclusion, undertaking leisure activities is becoming more and more commonplace among Chinese people. We can fairly say that Chinese people have truly come off age when it comes to their leisure activities and are now looking to further their experience by spending on numerous avenues that offer them such indulgences.    

Article written by Manohar Balivada, Vice President, Ifop, Shanghai. Published in Connexions magazine N.77