MADRID/FRANKFURT - Chinese tourists have overtaken Germans as the world's biggest-spending travelers after a decade of robust growth in the number of Chinese holidaying abroad, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) said on Thursday.
Chinese tourists, known for travelling in organized tours and snapping up luxury fashion abroad, spent $102 billion on foreign trips last year, outstripping deep-pocketed travelers from Germany and the United States.
Chinese tourists spent 41 percent more on foreign travel in 2012 than the year before, beating the close to $84 billion both German and U.S. travelers parted with last year.
Tourists from other fast-growing economies with swelling middle classes, like Russia and Brazil, also increased spending in 2012. In recession-hit Europe, however, French and Italian tourists reined in their holiday budgets.
"The impressive growth of tourism expenditure from China and Russia reflects the entry into the tourism market of a growing middle class from these countries," said UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai.
The German Travel Association (DRV) said it was to be expected that the Chinese would eventually overtake Germans in terms of spending, given that the country had more inhabitants than North America, Russia and Europe put together.
"But that they have overtaken us already is astonishing," DRV president Juergen Buechy said.
The Chinese make more long-haul trips than Germans, who typically go to Mediterranean destinations, meaning that the average spend per holiday was greater, he added.
China is the world's fastest growing tourist source market, thanks to higher disposable incomes in the world's number two economy and looser foreign travel restrictions. Chinese tourists made 83 million foreign trips in 2012, compared to 10 million in 2000.
Hoteliers, tour companies, restaurants and even taxi drivers will need to brush up on their knowledge of Chinese cuisine, culture and language if they are to tempt them away from favorite destinations like Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Maldives, European tourism officials have said.
Other countries in the top 10 including Japan and Australia posted growth in travel spending, though only Russia came close to China's huge growth, with a 32 percent increase in holiday budgets.
Russians are now the fifth highest-spending tourists, parting with $43 billion last year, according to the Madrid-based UNWTO, and catching up on the British, who spent $52 billion in 2012.
Italian spending dipped by 1 percent to $26 billion in 2012 and French tourists parted with $38 billion, a 6 percent drop year-on-year. The two euro zone peers were the only countries in the top 10 outbound markets to post declines.
Reporting by Clare Kane in Madrid and Victoria Bryan in Frankfurt.