The Role of Social Media in Shaping Tourists' Travel Decisions: Multi-Functional and Multi-Level Effects of Wechat Among Individual Chinese Outbound Tourists

The Role of Social Media in Shaping Tourists' Travel Decisions: Multi-Functional and Multi-Level Effects of Wechat Among Individual Chinese Outbound Tourists

Sandeep Basnyat (Macau Institute for Tourism Studies, Macau, China) and Yuan Jiahui (Macau Institute for Tourism Studies, Macau, China)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1947-9.ch004

Abstract

With increased economic and population growth, air connectivity, and travel facilities, international travel of Chinese citizens has tremendously increased. Although usually in groups, there has been a growing trend among Chinese tourists toward travelling independently. These independent travellers or so-called ‘new tourists' are highly exposed to new technologies and social media and prefer to do research about possible destinations, and new travel routes and activities that package tours usually do not include. This chapter examines how social media in general and WeChat, in particular, shapes the Chinese individual travellers' travelling decisions. As will be seen, while WeChat's popularity among the Chinese outbound tourists is largely attributed to its multi-functionality, its influences on their destination visitation choice are found in multiple levels: by providing illuminating information, allowing users to integrate their payment system easily to their bank accounts in China, and providing means to obtain discounts and promotional offers in a variety of ways.
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1. Introduction

This chapter explores the role played by the social media application in shaping tourists’ decision to visit a destination. The empirical data for this study was collected through in-depth semi-structured interviews with fifteen participants in 2017 and 2018 who were travelling from Shenzhen, Mainland China to Macau, the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, and had used WeChat, a popular social media platform, to make their travelling decisions. As will be seen, while WeChat’s popularity among the Chinese outbound tourists is largely attributed to its multi-functionality, its influences on their destination visitation choices are found in multiple levels.

Traditionally, the Mainland Chinese tourists have been travelling to other destinations including Macau, using package tours. However, there has been a growing trend among Chinese tourists who enjoy travelling independently, and it is assumed that almost 70 per cent of Chinese outbound travels is being organized independently (Peltier, 2018). A 2017 report published by the Statistics and Census Service Bureau of Macau shows that the number of Chinese tourists who have travelled to Macau independently or under the Individual Visit Scheme (IVS) has increased steadily, and grown several folds since 2009 (DSEC, 2017). These independent travellers or so-called ‘new tourists' are highly exposed to new technology and social media and prefer to do research about possible destinations, and new travel routes and activities that package tours usually may not include (DSEC, 2017; World Tourism Organization, 2017).

Many international travellers like to share their travel experiences on the websites, yet, others also search for and evaluate travel information online and in social media platforms such as Facebook, Sina microblog, and TripAdvisor. As a result, social media are becoming instrumental in influencing visitors in choosing attractions such as restaurants and accommodations during their travel (Tham, Croy, & Mair, 2013). As the social media platforms provide opportunities for discussions for tourists after their trips, they can potentially reinforce the image of a destination in tourists’ minds, strengthen its influences, and thus, motivate them to make decisions to travel to the destination. Choi, Lehto, and Morrison (2007) have confirmed that individual traveller’s perceptions about a destination play significant roles in their travel decision making, and those perceptions are highly induced and/or influenced by the social media platform they use.

Although getting online information about travel and destinations is relatively easy in many countries, accessing global major social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are limited in China because of the government restrictions (Chiu, Ip, & Silverman, 2012). Instead, WeChat is the most common and trusted social media application among the general Chinese population (Xu, Kang, Song, & Clarke, 2015). Because of a range of services that WeChat provides, including messaging, texting, pictures and video sharing, news and articles reading through official accounts, and payment handling among others, it is considered as ‘App for Everything in China’ by many (Xu, Kang, Song, & Clarke, 2015). Therefore, it is possible that the Chinese tourists who travel to a destination individually may have been influenced by the information and contents in the social media they have been using. More particularly, WeChat may have played instrumental roles in shaping the individual Chinese tourists’ decisions to visit a destination, however, this issue has not gained much attention in the existing literature. Filling this gap, this chapter examines how social media in general and WeChat, in particular, shapes the travellers' travelling decisions focusing on Chinese individual travellers. The chapter will particularly explore how the distinguishing features of WeChat such as ‘WeChat Pay', ‘Moments' and ‘Official subscription accounts' provide services and information in a way that influence the Chinese individual travellers’ outbound travelling decisions. In doing so, first, the next section will explore the historical development and travel patterns of the Chinese outbound tourists which will be followed by sections that examine the use and popularity of social media and WeChat among the Chinese outbound travellers and how WeChat influences their travelling decisions. The chapter will then conclude with a short remark, implications of the findings of the chapter and direction for future research.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Individual Visit Scheme (IVS): Tourism liberalization measure adopted by the Chinese government to allow travellers from Mainland China to visit Hong Kong and Macau on an individual basis.

Distribution Channels: Network used to get a product or services from the manufacturer or creator to the end user or customer.

WeChat: A Chinese multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app developed by Tencent.

User-Generated Contents (UGC): Any form of content such as video, blogs, discussion form posts, digital images, audio files, and other forms of media created by consumers or end-users of an online system or service and is publically available to other consumers and end-users.

Social media: Websites and computer programmes that allow people to communicate and share information on the internet using a computer or mobile phone.

Authenticity: The quality of being real or true.

Instant Messaging: A real-time, text-based communication similar to chat that uses a shared software client between or among two or more people using personal computers, phones or other communicating devices.

Outbound Tourism: The activity of travelling to a foreign country by the residential citizen

Approved Destination Status (ADS): Approved Destination Status (ADS) is an arrangement between the Chinese government and another country, that lets Chinese holiday travellers visit a country in a tour group.

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