If you ever find yourself on the streets of China, you’d be hard-pressed to find locals looking for directions using Google Maps. Thanks to the Great Firewall, most Google apps are blocked in the country, allowing domestic alternatives like Baidu Maps and Alibaba’s AMAP (aka AutoNavi or Gaode Maps) to dominate instead.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.) 

But when people living in China venture overseas, the tables are turned. While Baidu has been offering international map services since 2015, Chinese online forums are full of comments advising travelers to use Google Maps instead.

“Why use Baidu and AMAP when you’re already abroad?” one user asked in a post that’s one of many online posts offering similar suggestions. “There is still a huge gap between Google Maps and Baidu Maps or AMAP. They simply aren’t comparable!”

“Google Maps is recommended when traveling abroad,” another user said. “Rich content. Very practical.”

A search for the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, US, appears to show more topographical information in Google Maps (left), such as the location of a river, while Baidu Maps (right) provides more information about surrounding restaurants and accommodations (left).

It’s notable advice, given that Google Maps isn’t easily accessible to all Chinese tourists. Those who roam on a China-issued SIM card remain inside the Great Firewall, meaning Google apps are still blocked even when they go abroad.

Still, some travelers manage to use Google Maps by renting a wireless travel router or buying an overseas SIM card. It’s one of the reasons why Baidu, despite its success at home, is currently used by only 50% of Chinese travelers abroad. That leaves plenty of room for competitors. 

Just this month, AMAP announced that it’s partnering up with mapping data company Here Technologies to provide global map content and traffic information outside China. Here is already a provider for Baidu Maps. AMAP’s service will go online later this year, starting in Southeast Asia, and it’s aimed squarely at tourists.

“The world is shrinking as more and more people turn to the internet and super apps such as AMAP to navigate not just within their countries, but also when they travel,” said Stanimira Koleva, senior vice president and general manager for APAC at Here Technologies.

Just like Baidu, AMAP will likely try to distinguish itself with functions tailored for Chinese users. Baidu users can hail rides through Ctrip -- China’s largest online travel agency, which partners with various local ride-hailing services and offers auto-translation for riders and drivers. At popular tourist sites, Baidu offers audio guides, ticketing information and links to agents offering local tours -- all in Chinese.

A search for Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, as seen on Google Maps (left) and Baidu Maps (right). Baidu Maps offers a description of the site in Chinese, as well as audio guides in Mandarin. (Picture: Google/Baidu)

Alibaba’s jump into the fray comes as more Chinese tourists are using Alipay, its affiliated mobile payment app, abroad. During last year’s National Day holiday, Ant Financial said users spent an average of US$350 overseas, up 15% from the previous year.