Interview : Wolfgang Arlt, Founder of COTRI


An expert in tourism talks about the beginning about Chinese outbound tourism

We receive today Wolfgang Art, expert in Chinese outbound tourism, who has been working in the tourism industry for more than 30 years, starting back in 1978 and more than 150 times since then
His background in a few key features :

M.A. in Sinology (1985) and PhD in Political Sciences (2002) from FU Berlin, studies at Fu-Jen University in Hsinchu/Taiwan (1977) and Chinese University of Hong Kong (1980/81).Work experience as publisher, journalist, consultant, organizer of fairs and exhibitions, owner of outbound and inbound tour operator (offices in Berlin and Beijing from 1992-1999), all in connection with China, tourism and transportation.

Professor for International Tourism Management since 2002, 2002-2008 at Fachhochschule Stralsund, Teaching in Bachelor and Master Programme “International Tourism Management”, M.A. programme completely in English with each cohort consisting of international student from more than ten different countries

Frequently quoted in major Chinese and international media including CNN, BBC, CCTV, CRI, Phoenix TV, Xinhua, Guangzhou Ribao, China Daily, Time Magazine, The Times, The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International New York Times, South China Morning Post

Contributor to with own blog on Chinese outbound tourism
Numerous publications about Chinese outbound tourism

What was China like when you first came there 30 years ago?

I visited Mainland China for the first time in Spring 1978 as part of a urban planning study group. Hua Guofeng was the chairman, the cities were dark at night, almost no cars and no private businesses or restaurants. When we insisted to visit the only existing metro line in Beijing, the whole traffic on the line was halted for one hour and the stations we started and ended our tour cleared of any persons. Everybody we talked to was very unsure what to say, the Cultural Revolution was over and the Gang of Four in prison, but the reform and opening policy had not been announced yet. As a “punishment” for supporting the Gang of Four, Shanghai was barred from receiving any foreign visitors, so we went to Dazhai instead, the showcase People’s Commune (“Industry learns from Daqing, Agriculture learns from Dazhai”).
Looking back from today, it is hard to believe that this is still the same planet.

Could you describe your company?

COTRI China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI) claims to be the world’s leading independent research institute for information, training, quality assessment, research, and consultancy relating to the Chinese outbound tourism market. This is true, as nobody independently has been so long specialised in this field and has such a wide network with more than 20 COTRI Country Partners active all over the world.



Could you tell us a bit more about your past experience and what led you to create COTRI?

In the 1980s, after finishing my studies in Sinology,  I organised specialised tours to China for German tourists, in the 1990s delegations from China to the newly unified Germany and other countries. Since 2002 I am a full-time professor for International Tourism Management, so in 2004 I started COTRI as a organisation to combine my practical experiences with research on China’s outbound tourism. Until 2013 this was quite a small outfit, only in the last two years has the interest become much stronger and COTRI has grown with the demand. We provide data, trainings, market research and strategic consulting to companies and organisations on all continents.

What are the main factors of success  in the Chinese outbound tourism?

For the top 5% of the Chinese society outbound travel has already become a part of their lifestyle and normal consumption pattern, and of course with globalisation business and MICE travel has become also more and more important. The next 5% of the society are just starting to go further than just Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan. To be successful in the market, a deep understanding of the different segments of the market and the specific needs is necessary. To cater to “the” Chinese tourists with a Chinese brochure and some cup noodles in the minibar is not enough.

Could you describe the current situation of the market?

60% of border crossings still end already in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan. These travels are different from the “real” outbound travel in terms of organisation form, length, cost etc. Talking about the 40% going further the majority is still travelling in package tours, mostly coming from second or third tier cities. However, more and more experienced travellers move from sightseeing to lifestyle confirmation and from ticking off places quickly to more “authentic” and slower experiences with the chosen destination. That also means that smaller destinations can attract more Chinese visitors if they tell the right story in the right way.

What’s your take on the future trends?

Segmentation will further develop. With every year the number of experienced travellers is growing. Children and older persons are not afraid to travel internationally as they can see that it is not dangerous and that the destinations are getting ready to receive Chinese visitors. Simplified or waived visa also make it easier to travel spontaneously. Some places will be “taken over” completely by Chinese visitors, as some in Southeast Asia already are, but everywhere you will meet much more Chinese travellers. By 2020 one out of seven international border crossings will originate in Mainland China.

What do you think you company will be in 5 years?

COTRI will hopefully keep its position as the No. 1 source for information and advise about the Chinese outbound market. We do not want to grow a lot, but rather concentrate on our core competencies and work with COTRI Country Partners in all important destinations and with trusted partner service providers in fields they are experts in, like Social media marketing or representation for instance. We will be even more than today a One-Stop-Shop” offering all services, some provided by ourself, some by close partners.

Given how quickly the market changes, what was the most spectacular change in the Chinese market last year?

On a policy level: In China, it seems that the new leadership of CNTA plays a more active role in supporting but also regulating than in earlier years, this is certainly good news for everybody involved in the market. Outside of China, the struggle between security concerns and the wish for a piece of the Chinese outbound pie seems to have been won by the tourism and retail industry. Ten years visa for the USA and Canada, three years multiple entry visa for Australia, visa free entry to many smaller countries – this development has picked up pace faster than expected.
On a practical level: The split in the market between the search for authentic behaviour and the tour which is only done to talk about it afterwards could not be better illustrated than by the “monster groups” of  6,400 employees in France and the 12,700 employees in Thailand, brought there as a marketing stunt by the company owners.
Chinese tourists

What do you think the Chinese outbound tourist market will be like in 10 years?

Barring any “Black Swan” event, China will be one of the leading economies in the world with the second biggest population after India. With 20% of the affluent people living in China, also 20% of the international travel, for business, studies, private visits and leisure will originate in Mainland China. Chinese and English will be the two global languages and nobody will be surprised any more to see Chinese visitors.
How to attract Chinese outbound tourists
Learn more about Chinese tourists most preferred destination 
Should you want to know more about Social media and Chinese outbound tourism please take a look there 


  • Very interesting interview.
    Wolfgang do you think Chinese tourists will really reach 200millions within 5years?

    • Dear Laowai,
      certainly. COTRI is expecting 135 million for 2015. Maybe it will be a bit less if the Schengen countries make it much harder to get Schengen visa with the new biometrical requirements. But even with 10% growth you would jump across the 200 million mark by 2020. If fact, more than that can be expected.

Leave your comment