As China’s Economy Stutters, the Elderly Are Emerging as Big Spenders


Zheng Peijun hasn’t let China’s “zero-COVID” restrictions stop her having a good time. 

Before the pandemic, the 60-year-old used to go on vacations all over the world: to the United States, Southeast Asia, and a dozen different European countries. This year, she’s had to stay within China, but she’s traveling even more than before.

This week, she’s spending the National Day holiday hiking with her family on Shanghai’s Chongming Island. Last month, she joined a few friends on a tour of the southeastern Fujian province. She’s now going on at least 10 trips to destinations around China per year, which is costing her around one-third of her pension, she said. 

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“I have time and money, and I always loved traveling,” Zheng told Sixth Tone. “But I couldn’t do it when I was working with a busy schedule.”

Seniors like Zheng have emerged as the driving force of China’s tourism sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have remained one of the few bright spots for an industry that has been decimated by the country’s draconian lockdown policies and a wider economic slowdown.

China’s economy is predicted to grow just 2.8% this year, a sharp drop from last year’s 8.1% growth. The tourism sector has been hit particularly hard: flight and train bookings have fallen dramatically for this year’s National Day holiday, which coincides with the Double Ninth Festival — also known as the “senior citizens’ festival.”

A man takes photos for a woman at a beach in Wanning, Hainan province, July 15, 2022. VCG

A man takes photos for a woman at a beach in Wanning, Hainan province, July 15, 2022. VCG

Yet the elderly have been a reliable source of demand. Unlike young people, they have been mostly insulated from the downturn in China’s job market. And many have plenty of disposable income thanks to their state pensions and mortgage-free homes.

Pension payments in China are determined based on the average monthly wage and cost of living in each city. Retired workers in Shanghai receive 5,000 yuan ($700) per month on average, and the amount increases annually.

Zhao Wenzhi, the president of a major travel company in southern China, said last month that tourists aged over 50 have driven the recovery in the tourism sector after each major COVID-19 outbreak. Over-50s usually have travel budgets between 2,000 and 10,000 yuan, which makes them a high-spending group, he added.

“Middle-aged and elderly people are less affected by the economy, place greater value on enjoying life, and are willing to increase their travel budgets,” said Zhao.

Last year, online travel giant Trip.com said that per capita tourism spending was rising significantly faster among people born in the 1950s and 1960s than among young Chinese born in the 1990s and 2000s. In September, the company found that travelers aged 60 or over were spending 23% more in 2022 compared with last year.

Middle-aged and elderly people are less affected by the economy, place greater value on enjoying life, and are willing to increase their travel budgets.

– Zhao Wenzhi, travel executive

And the elderly will only become more important as China’s population rapidly ages. According to a report on China’s senior tourism market published in late 2020, elderly people will account for half of tourism spending in the country by 2040.

By 2050, when China’s elderly population is forecast to reach 480 million, seniors will be spending over 2.4 trillion yuan on tourism, up from around 1 trillion yuan in 2018, the report predicted.

The Chinese tourism industry is already adapting to these changes, with many companies launching new packages geared toward elderly travelers. But industry experts say there’s still a long way to go, with unsuitable products and market disorder still plaguing the industry.

Another Shanghai retiree, surnamed Liu, told Sixth Tone he’s stopped joining tour groups after an exhausting trip to southwest China’s Yunnan province.

“It’s supposed to be a place for relaxing, but the busy tour schedule kept me from enjoying it,” the 69-year-old said.

Since last year, Liu and his friends have been traveling with tour companies that cater specially to elderly travelers. They have already taken six trips in 2022, he says.

“We only check out one tourist spot per day,” Liu says. “The rest of the time we chat and enjoy local food.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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