A hoped-for surge in Chinese tourism in Asia over the Lunar New Year holidays next week appears to be a blip, with most travelers opting to stay within China if they travel at all.
The hordes of Chinese often seen on Bali’s beaches and Hokkaido’s powdery ski slopes will still need to be added, according to tour operators.
Many businesses hoped the lean pandemic days were over after Beijing relaxed travel restrictions and stopped requiring weeks-long quarantines. Nonetheless, bookings for international travel have skyrocketed, indicating that the industry will soon recover.
“I believe tourists will return around the end of February or early March,” said Sisdivachr Cheewarattaporn, president of Thailand’s Travel Agents Association, saying that many Chinese citizens are lacking passports, flights are limited, and tour operators are still struggling to handle group travel.
Another major factor is the persistence of outbreaks following China’s policy reversal, he said in an interview. “Perhaps people aren’t ready or are just getting ready.”
For the time being, the Chinese territories of Macao and Hong Kong are the most popular destinations.
Famous tourist attractions in Macao, such as Senado Square and the Ruins of St. Paul, were jam packed just days before the Lunar New Year began on Sunday. The gambling floors of two major casinos were mostly full, with Chinese visitors clustered around the craps tables.
“I’m so busy every day that I don’t have time to rest,” said Lee Hong-soi, owner of a souvenir shop. He claimed that sales had recovered to roughly 70%-80% of pre-pandemic levels.
Beijing ends zero Covid
Even after Beijing relaxed “zero COVID” restrictions that sought to isolate all cases through mass testing and onerous quarantines, many would-be vacationers remain home.
Cong Yitao, a Beijing-based auditor, was unconcerned about contracting the virus because his entire family had COVID-19. However, he was put off by testing restrictions and other limitations imposed by some countries, including the US, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, following China’s relaxation of pandemic precautions.
“It appears that many countries do not welcome us,” Cong said, adding that he intended to travel to a subtropical destination in China, such as Hainan Island or Xishuangbanna, to enjoy the warmer weather.
Trip.com, states a major travel services company, overseas travel bookings for the Lunar New Year holidays of January 21-27 have increased more than fivefold. However, this was an increase from almost nothing the previous year, when China’s borders were closed to most visitors.
Travel to Southeast Asia has increased tenfold, with Thailand being the most popular destination, followed by Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Indonesia.
Travel to other favorite destinations, such as Bali and Australia, have been limited due to a lack of flights. However, this is changing, with new flights being added daily.
Thailand Prepares for Chinese Tourists
Tourism Australia predicts that international travel spending will surpass pre-pandemic levels within a year. Before the disruptions caused by COVID-19, Chinese tourists accounted for nearly one-third of total tourist spending, amounting to nearly $9 billion.
Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok has increased staffing to handle more than 140,000 arrivals per day during the Lunar New Year rush, though for the time being, only individual Chinese travelers will be arriving — group tours from China have yet to resume.
A Shanghai man who would only give his surname, Zhang, posed with a companion in colorful traditional silken Thai costumes as the sun set behind ancient Wat Arun beside Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river.
“It’s very cold in China right now, and Thailand has summer weather,” Zhang explained, he said he knew many friends who had booked tickets to escape the cold, damp weather of his hometown.
Still, the allure of world travel has been surpassed for many Chinese for the time being by a desire to return to their hometowns and reconnect with their families, nearly three years to the day since the first major coronavirus outbreak struck the central city of Wuhan in one of the worst disasters in modern history.
Isabelle Wang, a finance professional in Beijing, has traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Her priority after three years of a slower-paced life due to the pandemic is reuniting with her family in Shangrao, a city in south-central China.
“There’s still lots of time left in our lives, and there will undoubtedly be opportunities to travel abroad later if we want to,” she said.