BEIJING (Reuters) - Dong Xuemin can’t wait for weekends when he heads out with family or friends to the mountains north of Beijing or to a lake for a picnic.
Dong is a “Red Ant” - a member of a club of urban Chinese who’ll find any excuse to hit the road, not in ordinary cars, but in recreational vehicles, those quintessential Western chariots of leisure transportation used by “Snowbirds” in North America typified by white-haired retirees heading south for the winter.
“RVs have a long and glorious history in the West,” says Dong, 41, who runs a logistics and storage business in Beijing where he stores his RV, boat, all-terrain vehicle and motorized surfboard. “Chinese are the same; we love the outdoors. So we’re learning the American and Western RV culture.”
China’s RV market is still minuscule compared to North America. Chinese buyers bought an estimated 1,000 RVs last year compared to more than 250,000 sold in the United States. A lack of government regulations, campgrounds, plumbing and decent roads in many parts of the country are among the challenges stalwart road-warriors face.
Experts, however, say the RV business in China is about to take off, benefiting domestic manufacturers and foreign makers alike. The RV China Association expects sales to increase 40 percent between 2012 and 2015 to close to 4,000.
“An RV market needs people with money and time. Chinese have usually had one, but not the other,” says Bill Liu, whose Santa Clara, California-based company, China Motorhome, exports American-made RVs to China.
Liu predicts RV sales in China will skyrocket to 500,000 annually in 20 years because, with China’s first generation of modern entrepreneurs getting set to retire, “for the first time in Chinese history you have people with money and time.”
And while most Chinese today take to the air to travel south for balmy winter vacations, in 10 years that will be very different, Liu believes.
“We’ll see Chinese snowbirds,” he says, “maybe even Russians.”
Domestic RV manufacturers currently dominate with about 60 percent of the Chinese market and offer a range of choices for RV buyers. Chinese seeking a luxury life on the road can go for a high-end Wuzhouxing touring bus, made in Henan province south of Beijing and selling for up to 2 million yuan ($315,000).
“We use Nissan engines and chassis and build everything on top of it,” says CEO Li Jian, who started the company after he had difficulty finding places to stay on trips to remote Tibet. “If campgrounds are developed, the RV market will take off,” Li says.
Meng Qiang, another Red Ant, started a company producing a small, entry-level trailer called the Sojourner that sells for 45,000-55,000 yuan ($7,100-$8,700) and is outfitted with an outdoor cooking range, air conditioning, lots of storage and a 19-inch flatscreen TV.
“People in China ask strange questions though,” Meng said. “Like, ‘Can you actually take this on the road?’ It keeps me busy spreading the word about camping cars.”
Domestic makers such as Great Wall Motor Co and Zhongtian RV have been making RVs for about 11 years and each sold about 100 last year.
“We need more people to have the chance to come and see an RV, how to use it, how it fits in their lives,” says Huang Fei, a sales executive with Zhongtian of Tianjin, whose carriages sell for up to 780,000 yuan ($123,000).
One of those who might take a chance on an RV was Xie Tongyang, an engineering contractor in his 50s, who was looking at rigs at a recent RV trade show.
“At our age, we can just about afford this, so I wanted to come take a look,” said Xie, who learned about RVs by seeing Winnebago Industries Inc products online. “China’s really big, so something like this would be pretty convenient. And I like driving.”
Fast-rising imports into China could also help revive American RV makers such as Winnebago, Thor Industries Inc, Navistar International Corp and others.
RV shipments in the United States are expected to reach 265,200 this year, well below the 390,500 sold in 2006, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, as U.S. consumers put off spending on big-ticket items in a weak economy.
Winnebago has been exporting to China for about two years through China Motorhome. Prices are more than double because of shipping and import duties of 100 percent or more; the 24-foot Winnebago View, at around $102,000 in the United States, costs $220,000 in China. The luxury, bus-like Itasca Suncruiser, costing up to $170,000 in the United States, is $400,000 in China.
“China is a developing market with an expanding middle class who we believe have a large interest in pursuing the RV lifestyle,” Winnebago spokeswoman Sheila Davis said.
“We realize that there is much more to be done to build the infrastructure in China to support RVs. However, China appears to be interested in making those changes,” she said.
Currently there is no centralized program to develop RV campgrounds nationally and no large campground chains like KOA in the United States. Small, local companies are starting to invest in building campgrounds, primarily in coastal provinces such as Shandong, Zhejiang and Fujian, and to a lesser extent in popular tourist regions like Sichuan province.
Enthusiastic Red Ants like Dong and Liu Shixiong will be key to expanding China’s RV industry. The Red Ants and other owners are leading the push for better roads, service areas and campgrounds with water and electricity hook-ups.
Liu, 41, owns four identical Ford RV vans that sleep four each and which he lets his friends drive. “I like travelling with friends, but they don’t have RVs,” he explained, adding that could change. “As the industry develops, RV prices will drop and the masses will be able to afford them,” Liu says.
At a recent overnight stay in a campground in Beijing’s southern suburbs, several Red Ants and their families circled their wagons next to a lake. Grownups made their way through three kinds of beer, two brands of cigarettes and a big jar of watermelon seeds as Western pop songs from Abba and Celine Dion blared.
Dinnertime arrived, and with the barbecue skewers and pig’s ear stew came more beer and “baijiu” rice liquor. Men challenged each other to arm wrestling. One began reading other campers’ palms. Boisterous talk and laughter blended with aromas of grilled chicken and lamb.
“This is close to Beijing, so it’s really convenient,” said Liu Jun, 46, who has a vehicle repair and cargo-trailer business. “Chinese have lots of money, but wealthy Chinese don’t know how to enjoy themselves outdoors,” he said. His Zhongtian RV cost 560,000 yuan ($88,000).
Several of the RVs had “Beijing Red Ants Outdoor Power League” decals as big as basketballs on their sides. Liu Jun hoisted a large flag with the Red Ant logo over his Jeep Cherokee as if staking out a land claim. His trailer had the Chinese words for “Ant Nest” painted on it.
“China has become urbanized; city people spend all their time in buildings, all reinforced steel and concrete,” said Wang Xudong, secretary of the RV China Association, who was among the campers. “It’s no fun. But if they can get to where there are trees and water and grass, it’s a terrific feeling.”
Reporting by Terril Yue Jones. Editing by Matt Driskill