Coronavirus brought China’s travel industry to a standstill. Now it’s showing signs of life

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Much of the world is struggling to contemplate how to make a trip to the local grocery store amid the coronavirus pandemic. China, meanwhile, is starting to mull leisure travel.

Chinese residents will have several days off next month for the annual ‘Golden Week,’ from May 1 to May 5, that celebrates the country’s Labor Day holiday. With offices and businesses closed, it’s a popular time to travel. And with the dark days of China’s coronavirus lockdowns fresh in their minds, millions of people are ready to stretch their legs—80 million in fact.

A new report from Chinese online travel agency Trip.com on tourism trends ahead of the upcoming holiday estimates that 80 million people are expected to take trips over the five-day break. For now, the company says there is far more demand for trips that involve smaller groups and are within driving distance of travelers’ homes. However, Sanya, a beach resort city in southern China, is among the top destinations, signaling that there are at least some travelers willing to fly; Sanya is on Hainan island.

To be sure, this year’s traveler projection is less than half of last year’s total for the same holiday—195 million. But it’s nearly double the 43 million who made trips during China’s Tomb-Sweeping Day holiday in early April, suggesting the country’s tourism industry is rebounding after the coronavirus brought large swaths of the country to an abrupt standstill.

The revival of China’s travel sector may provide hope to the restless millions under lockdown around the world, but the upcoming holiday in China will by no means be a free-for-all. In fact, travelers will be staggered, scanned, and subject to restrictions, perhaps providing a glimpse at what global travel will look like once the worst of the crisis is over.

Travel with care

Chinese travelers make up the world’s largest source of international tourism revenue with 131 million trips abroad each year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. But few will be leaving the country in coming weeks. Firstly, there are few places to go as other nations have shut their borders to non-residents amid the COVID-19 outbreak. And second, returning home is burdensome, since China has imposed 14- to 28-day quarantine for all arrivals from abroad.

Those limitations, however, may be boon to China’s domestic travel industry that was all but paralyzed from the end of January to the middle of March.

At the same time though, domestic tourist sites and operators will have to adhere to a new set of guidelines released by China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism on April 13, which appear aimed at avoiding the kinds of large crowds that descended on tourist sites during the early April holiday.

The guidelines state that tourist sites in China can only operate at 30% capacity and must “strictly limit” the number of people purchasing tickets in-person. The majority of visitors to any site in China will have to pre-register for tickets through travel agencies or directly through site operators, the guidelines stated.

Each site will also conduct health checks of visitors with temperature screenings and the scanning of health code apps, which rate users on their risk of COVID-19 infection.

The regulations are cumbersome, but travel agencies and tour operators, eager for business, are adapting to China’s new tourism environment.

“The pandemic has presented a great challenge for all of us,” Trip.com Chairman James Liang said in a press release on Tuesday. “A shift towards new, innovative modes of tourism is driving promising growth over the upcoming holiday, and indicative of new heights for the industry in the near future.”

A bump for airlines

China’s airlines, meanwhile, also see golden week as a lifeline.

During the first quarter of 2020, China’s airline industry lost $5.6 billion due to travel restrictions imposed during the country’s response to the pandemic, according to China’s Civil Aviation Administration. The aviation sector is poised to lose over $50 billion dollars in comparison to 2019.

“Chinese carriers are hoping that they could make a breakthrough on the Labour Day holiday,” Lei Zheng, the president of the airline industry-focused think-tank the Institute for Aviation Research, told the South China Morning Post.

Domestic carriers are offering dirt-cheap deals and innovative packages to lure domestic travelers back into seats.

CNN found that several domestic carriers in China were offering extra seats at discounted rates for those who wanted to maintain their distance from fellow passengers. Domestic carrier China Express was even offering passengers the option to receive six seats for the price of one.

Those bargain-basement prices have climbed slowly in recent weeks, but flights are still significantly cheaper than before the outbreak. A roundtrip ticket from Beijing to China’s southeastern city of Kunming during golden week costs around $140, according to the Chinese version of trip.com. In early January, the same trip was $400.

A report from the Chinese investment bank, China International Capital Corporation, said that an uptick in travel bookings in the weeks before the holiday points towards a ‘U-shaped’ recovery for the industry, as opposed to a continued ‘L-shaped’ curve with further losses.

Even before the lead-up to Golden Week, China’s aviation industry was improving. As of April 21, the number of daily air passengers in China was was up 7.9% compared to March, China’s aviation administration said on Wednesday. There is, however, lots of room to grow as China’s April passenger volume represents 29% of totals from the same period last year, the airline regulator reported.

The drop-off in air travel in early 2020 was mostly by design, as China sought to contain its coronavirus outbreak. In addition to regional lockdowns in the first quarter, China banned nearly all foreigners from entering the country—even those with resident permits—on March 28 and reduced flights to foreign countries to one roundtrip journey per country per week. But in another upbeat sign for the travel industry, Chinese officials have begun exploring with counterparts in Asia and Europe the possibility of facilitating business trips for foreigners, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

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