When 63-year-old Zuo Fei and her husband Qian Hui flew to Sri Lanka for a holiday in 2017, it turned into the trip of a lifetime. Travelling from coast to coast across the island, the Beijingers revelled in the sunrise each morning, gathered armfuls of seashells, gorged on seafood and strolled hand in hand along the beaches.
The lush coasts of Sri Lanka were far removed from the sprawling streets of the Chinese capital. Yet the retired civil servants didn’t have to look far for a reminder of home during their two-week holiday – they were joined by their eldest daughter Qian Yao and two pre-school grandchildren.
‘We had a great time travelling together in Sri Lanka,’ says Zuo. ‘My daughter organised everything, so my husband and I didn’t have to worry about anything. Travelling together meant we could all take care of one another while sharing the experience.’
Supersized family holidays – otherwise known as multi-generational, or 3G travel – are becoming increasingly popular in China, Asia and beyond. According to Agoda’s Family Travel Trends 2018 report , 66 and 54 per cent of travellers surveyed from Thailand and Indonesia respectively had taken trips with their grandparents the year before. As China’s average disposable income per capita rises – RMB30,733 (HK$34,270) in 2019, up almost 9 per cent from the previous year – members of its growing young middle class are able to afford the trips that their parents could not. And they’re taking them along for the ride. Call it obligation, call it thanks, call it filial piety – regardless, it’s on the rise.
Credit: Anton Yermolov
Luxury travel network Virtuoso has named multi-generational travel as its top trend for 2020, while a survey by the China Tourism Academy indicated that 90 per cent of Chinese tourists preferred travelling with their families. It’s happening halfway across the world, too – perhaps for other reasons. In a 2018 Expedia survey , 54 per cent of American Gen Z travellers said they usually travel with family – and 58 per cent of the respondents said their parents had paid all expenses for a trip in the last year.
Another reason: family bonding is harder than it used to be. China’s rapid urbanisation has taken many workers away from their hometowns and families. Multi-generational travel has become a way to reconnect and spend quality time together.
Education manager Li Chaoxun, who is from Zhejiang province but now lives in Chengdu, often travels with his extended family around China. Last summer, the 30-year-old spent his weekends touring Sichuan with his wife Liao Feng, infant son, parents, grandparents and parents-in-law. With Li’s father working in Yunnan province and his grandparents living in Hangzhou, it was a family reunion of sorts.
With so many generations together, you have to consider the needs of every traveller, Liao says. ‘My grandparents-in-law are over 80 years old, so we had to plan everything in advance: the route, hotel and food. They can only eat lighter food like they’re used to eating in Hangzhou. When we went to Dujiangyan [an ancient irrigation system], we wanted to try the local cuisine but since all the dishes were spicy, we had to ask the chef to tone it down.
‘Organising everything is really quite tiring,’ she continues. ‘But, when we see how really pleased our grandparents are at everyone being together, we’re happy, too. It’s about more than just sightseeing.’
Travelling with different family members means dividing up responsibilities, Liao says. ‘My husband and his father plan all the logistics. My mother-in-law and I only need to take care of the baby, eat and have fun.’
Li points out that multi-generational travel often comes at a high price, with a weekend trip to Dujiangyan costing more than RMB2,000 (HK$2,220) per person. But it’s worth it, he says.
‘We don’t worry about how much we spend. Whether we’re at a fancy or cheap hotel or restaurant, it doesn’t matter, as long as we are all having a good time.’
His wife adds: ‘At home, his parents remind us to save money, but when we go out, they don’t care: anything goes.’
Money aside, Li admits that bickering is bound to occur between family members, though it’s never a big deal. ‘Looking back months later, it’s not the fights I remember, but the good times,’ he says.
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Ultimately, multi-generational travel is about creating memories that will last across the generations.
Zhang Yan, 42, was born in Qingdao on the east coast, but has lived in Beijing for almost 20 years. A language teacher, she has travelled the country with her husband, son and parents extensively over the years, visiting places like Xiamen and Beidaihe.
Two years ago the Zhangs visited Hong Kong, much to the delight of her 72-year-old mother. During the week-long trip, the family took in Victoria Peak and the harbour, though it was the food that stood out. ‘We loved eating shrimp wonton – we could have eaten them and nothing else all day, every day,’ Zhang says with a laugh.
‘My mum had really wanted to go. Back when she was growing up, life was hard; China hadn’t developed yet. So now she likes to visit places with a modern feel.
‘I think this differs from us younger generations, who grew up in modern society – we prefer to visit scenic areas and the countryside. I’d like to visit Inner Mongolia, but I don’t think my mum would be interested.’
For Zhang’s mother-in-law it was a family trip to Beidaihe, a coastal resort town in northeastern China, that proved life-changing. Growing up in landlocked Sichuan province, the 80-year-old had never seen the ocean before.
‘Standing at the water’s edge, she was a little frightened as she watched the tide come up,’ Zhang recalls. ‘So my son, who’d visited the beach at Qingdao before, took her hand. He said “Don’t be afraid”, and showed her how to walk along the beach.
‘It left a deep impression. When she went back to her hometown in Sichuan, she told all her friends she’d been to the sea.’
Names have been changed.
Located in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, this biodiversity-rich park is covered by grasslands and cloud forest. A highlight is World’s End, a steep cliff that plunges 880 metres into the valley below. Visit early, as the precipice is often shrouded in mist.
Constructed around 256 BC, this system west of Chengdu still functions today, helping to drain off floodwaters and distribute water across 50 cities. It’s viewed as an historic achievement in the development of water management. And with the lush mountains of Sichuan around it, it’s more than just an engineering marvel.
A coastal resort town in Hebei province, known for its inviting 22.5-kilometre coastline. The area, which hugs the shores of the Bohai sea, is home to extensive wetlands, making it a hotspot for migrating birds – and birdwatchers.
Hero image: Anton Yermolov