The pandemic changed us all in some way, whether it’s by switching to oat milk, getting a facelift or becoming a keen gardener. Around the world, many people responded to the restrictions by taking to the great outdoors. Worldwide there’s been a big swell in interest in camping and outdoor pursuits, with an associated boom in sales for businesses in this space.
That’s particularly the case in Asia, where glamping (comfort camping) and other outdoor pursuits are experiencing a surge in popularity. Over the last decade, many Asian consumers have taken to travelling both inside and outside the continent.
Thanks to higher household incomes and expanding middle classes, India and China are both seeing soaring rates of interest in travel both internally and externally. The large population size of both these markets means Indian and Chinese outbound tourism has had a significant impact on travel and tourism globally in recent years. With all types of travel curtailed by the pandemic, this wanderlust is now looking for new outlets.
The recently released five-year development plan for Chinese tourism focuses very much on internal travel, particularly rural tourism and outdoor recreation. There are plans to encourage road trips and develop camping infrastructure, all with an emphasis on sustainability.
Trip.com research reports a huge increase in interest for nature-based vacations from Chinese traffic during the first half of 2021. Alibaba reported that camping-related searches on the platform had jumped nearly 300% in 2020.
China’s young, urban-based consumers seem to be the ones behind the glamping trend, which is saturating social media. As always, China’s influencers are highly involved, leading the way in showing how it’s done.
Luxury fashion has also been inspired, with camping-themed collections coming out of Gucci and Prada, among others. Chinese consumers are keen to try new ways of living and they are looking for guidance on how to adopt this new lifestyle.
China embraces the outdoors
Perhaps it’s no surprise that this outdoor lifestyle trend is especially evident in China. It’s always striking how quickly things change in China, particularly when it comes to social and consumer evolution.
The pandemic hit hard and hit early here, causing people to rethink their lifestyle values and also pursue virus-safe activities. Running and skiing are popular. There’s also increasing interest in wellbeing and fitness generally.
Camping is a social media-friendly activity; something that’s increasingly important to people worldwide. Outdoor lifestyles touch on a lot of trends that are important now, particularly in Chinese society.
The significance of this boom is twofold. Firstly, more than half the world’s population live in Asia, meaning even minor trends can have a huge global impact. Secondly, the growth potential is huge.
On their current growth trajectory, many more consumers in Asia’s emerging markets are likely to follow similar consumption paths as household incomes rise, meaning there may be many future consumers yet to convert to the outdoor life.
We know that in China around 3% of the population goes camping each year; in the US, the figure is 10%.
If camping achieves the same popularity in China as in the US, a huge number of people would be camping each year and this would represent a significant market for outdoor products. Already the industry is worth in excess of $60bn and well on its way to being worth $100bn by 2025.
Although Chinese customers are familiar with brands such as The North Face, Salomon or Arc’teryx, around half of the world’s outdoor gear brands are Chinese in origin. That’s striking because outdoor pursuits only really emerged in China during the nineties. This shows how successfully China’s own brands have been at starting up and how quickly this has happened.
It’s also a reflection of China’s unique take on the outdoor lifestyle, something that domestic brands are particularly good at catering to. Overseas brands are also struggling to compete with the high tariffs they face bringing goods into the market – tariffs that domestic brands don’t have to bear.
We know Chinese consumers value conspicuous consumption particularly highly. That tendency has really influenced the business of camping in China, where it’s definitely a spendy, high-end activity.
We also know that they tend to be sociable, particularly in terms of how they spend their leisure time. That may seem an obvious observation – after all, aren’t most cultures sociable?
But whereas camping might be seen as an activity to ‘get away from it all’ for a Western urbanite, Chinese people seem to have a higher tolerance level for crowds, even in outdoor activities. For many Chinese leisure seekers getting outdoors may mean going to a pretty crowded park or popular camping site. China’s high population density means that camping doesn’t necessarily mean getting away from the crowds.
Younger Chinese consumers are also starting to show interest in a slower lifestyle with a very different set of values than earlier high-pressure, high-workload generations. It’s partly a rebellion against the high speed of urban life which has characterised recent Chinese history and powered its growth.
As in many other parts of the world, the abrupt halt to regular life occasioned by the pandemic has caused many people to question the lifestyle they were previously living. Some cities in China have gone as far as proudly sporting the slow city label and resisted new fast food businesses from opening.
The movement is also characterised by an interest in cultural heritage, slow food, and artisan rather than mass-manufactured goods. It’s expected that these values will also influence internal tourism.
There’s also a growing interest in sustainability. This seems to overlap with the interest in camping, so new camping products tend to have sustainable credentials. While camping and outdoor pursuits may be popular in and of themselves, these activities also intersect with some other emerging trends and a shift in values in China. This is perhaps a reason to believe it’s not a mere short-lived trend but part of a wider social movement to change lifestyles more permanently.
Fortunately, China’s fast-moving entrepreneurs have quickly arranged a host of services that mean new campers can easily try out the lifestyle before they commit. It’s fairly essential to have a car to carry your kit to out of town camping locations.
China currently has relatively high rates of car ownership, at around 71%. While not all young urbanites have cars, they might know someone who does, and there are also plenty of car rental places. For those who don’t want to buy or transport the equipment, there’s also the option to just buy a ticket to a glamping ground that offers facilities including everything you’ll need.
There are currently thought to be around 70 of these around Beijing, and perhaps around a thousand across China. It’s really easy for people to try out glamping for the first time without needing to commit to the lifestyle by buying equipment such as a tent.
Opportunities for foreign brands
With interest in the outdoor lifestyle surging, many overseas outdoor brands are eyeing the Chinese market with keen interest. But it’s important to recognise how much you need to tailor your offering to meet Chinese expectations if you plan to enter it. You’ll need to adjust everything about your brand, including the pricing and messaging, before you can approach China’s urbanites.
There are some significant differences in the way Chinese travellers approach outdoor activities and it’s important to appreciate this if you’re entering this market. One big difference is that Chinese homes are on average much smaller than the average consumer home in a market such as Australia or the US.
This is highly significant because people just don’t have the space to store bulky equipment such as tents, sleeping bags and camp beds. This means the equipment rental market is always likely to be sizable in China and why disposable and highly compact equipment may be popular.
China’s campers seem to want to be slightly out of their comfort zone but there’s little appetite for taking the lifestyle to extremes. Trips tend to be short and there’s little interest in camping in extreme weather.
They also seem prepared to travel up to three hours from home but no further. Consumers want a short break and a taste of a lifestyle without exhausting themselves or compromising their work. Destinations within reach of urban areas are therefore popular.
Whilst China’s enthusiastic new generations of campers may be willing to commit to the lifestyle and splash out on buying the full kit, they won’t necessarily have the place to store it.
Some of China’s keen urban campers and outdoor pursuit enthusiasts have taken to using storage lockers to hold their equipment. Remember that people tend to marry relatively young in China, but families remain small despite the relaxation of the one-child policy.
Camping seems so far to be particularly popular among urban singletons, who particularly like to go on trips with friends their own age. But this population will mature and their personal arrangements could change in the next few years as China’s young single campers possibly evolve into young married parents. It’s unclear how their lifestyles will evolve with them.
High tariffs are an important barrier to selling outdoor goods in this market. Many overseas brands actively sell to the Chinese consumer from markets such as the US via services such as Amazon, which can help dodge the high tariffs.
Interest in camping is so far very concentrated in the under 33 age category and in key cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. As has previously been the case with China, these cities are likely to just be the pioneers and urbanites in smaller cities are likely to pick up the interest later.
One thing that’s very clear from all types of camping and outdoor vendors is the importance of social media. WeChat and the well-heeled social media platform Xiaohongshu are essential for any camping brand that’s trying to engage China’s young urbanites.
Social media has been instrumental in promoting the camping craze and it’s vital that any camping-related business engages there. Social media is also important to help educate novice consumers about a lifestyle that is new to them.
Camping may have enjoyed a recent surge in interest thanks to the highly unusual circumstances of the pandemic but the lifestyle also touches on many pertinent trends in China today.
Interest in sustainability, wellness and a slower pace of life are likely to persist even when coronavirus restrictions fade away. If your brand is going to try to compete in this space, it’s important to identify these trends and engage with consumers in a way that’s important to them. This is the approach that’s going to help sustain interest in camping and the outdoor lifestyle by tying these activities into modern Chinese values.