It’s even possible that China’s $280 billion worth of tourists won’t show up for many months due to the protracted complicated Covid-19 infection, restrictions on people entering from China and rising costs related to the breakdown of global tourism infrastructure.
“Fair prices are skyrocketing,” says Qin, who flew abroad at least three times a year before the pandemic broke out. Now everyone who travels is also worried about the problems of Covid-19, when the real cost is only for those who want to “burn money”. “It’s definitely not me,” Qin said.
When the pandemic broke out, China’s 1.4 billion people had to endure the strictest social distancing measures. Most of them were unable to leave the country for three years as Beijing pursued a zero-tolerance policy towards the epidemic. Pent-up demand has led many to believe that China’s reopening will spark a surge in global tourism.
Travelers from China are required to get tested for Covid-19.
However, that boom did not seem to be what was expected. Not many Chinese will choose to travel at all costs to make up for the time they have suffered over the past three years. The cost and comfort of travel are also taken into account, so a full recovery to pre-epidemic levels could take several months.
The number of cases skyrocketed
One barrier limiting Chinese tourist arrivals is the skyrocketing number of Covid-19 cases. Millions of Chinese may be living with Covid-19 and the number could increase many times when the Spring Festival kicks in — a time when hundreds of millions of Chinese leave major cities to go home to celebrate the New Year.
Meanwhile, the size and scope of the outbreak in China has prompted other countries to tighten their access controls, making Chinese people reluctant to go. Among the countries implementing quarantines with Chinese people are Japan, South Korea and the United States.
Chen Xin, head of China’s transportation and leisure research at UBS, said: “Most consumers are not mentally ready to travel abroad once they recover from Covid-19. We may have to wait until next year at the earliest to see Chinese tourist numbers return to pre-epidemic levels.”
Airport in Beijing, China on December 30.
Airlines share the same view about the slow return of Chinese tourists and are in no rush to increase capacity. Flights out of China in the first quarter were just 10.7% of pre-pandemic levels, though they are more than double what they were a year ago, according to aviation analysis firm Cirium.
Meanwhile, the lack of options leads to extremely expensive fares to fly abroad. On average, outgoing tickets cost about $556 as of Jan. 3, an 18 percent increase from Christmas.
In this situation, it is unlikely that the number of international flights will increase significantly before the Lunar New Year (in two weeks). Holidays also mean that applying for tourist visas and passports takes longer.
No one has booked
Another factor showing the slow recovery in tourism is travelers’ reluctance to book in advance. In contrast to a period when global tourist hotspots were overrun by Chinese tourists, travel agencies now say they are struggling to convince Chinese tourists to book trips in advance.
Previously, a 7-day trip from southwest China to the Thai capital Bangkok cost 1,880 yuan ($274) in 2018, but now it has increased to 1,103 USD, about four times. It is the sky-high price that leads many people to ask for it, but no one is willing to put down the money to close the order.
The sight of Chinese tourists thronging the scenic spots is still nostalgic.
This is also causing countries in the region to lower their expectations of Chinese tourists. Thailand’s Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said the country is ready to welcome 300,000 Chinese tourists in the first quarter of 2023, but only 60,000 are expected in January.
Hotel owners in Phuket, the southern island known for Thailand’s white-sand beaches, are also expected to see few guests during the Lunar New Year. Suksit Suvunditkul, president of the Hotel Association of Thailand and chief executive officer of Deevana Hotels and Resorts, said visitors returned but not the boom they had hoped for.
According to Mr. Suksit, very few flights come from China and his hotel itself does not have many Chinese guests booking.
The Holy Land is still… sad
But even if Chinese tourists return, the once bustling resorts, attractions and night markets may not be ready for them. Many hotspots have been ravaged by the pandemic and recovery will take a long time.
The supply chain that caters to the needs of Chinese tourists, from buses and Chinese restaurants to Mandarin-speaking guides, has largely collapsed in the past three years. Labor shortages raging in places like Singapore and Thailand are pushing companies into a state where they can’t recover quickly enough from a prolonged “great drought”. Millions of people who used to work in the hospitality industry had to find other work.
Stanley Foo, founder and managing partner of Oriental Travel & Tours in Singapore, said: “Singapore is not ready for the sudden influx of people. I am most concerned about the shortage of staff in the scenic spots. We can’t even handle the current number of guests.”
Chinese tourists are not ready to fly abroad for tourism.
Meanwhile, the organizers of 0-dong tours are also feeling desperate. This is a form of tourism where visitors don’t have to pay or pay very little for the whole trip, but have to go to shopping and sightseeing places regularly during the whole trip, which sell super expensive stuff.
“It took us 10 years to reduce the price of Thailand travel packages from $1,455 to $291. That was years of effort with relationships in the airline, retail, hospitality and convenience stores. There was a whole supply chain, but now it’s completely broken,” says Zhao, who used to have a team of 30 people who organized zero-dong tours.
When foreign travel is expensive and not ready, Chinese tourists return to domestic attractions: shopping in Hainan, skiing in Harbin…. China’s domestic flights are also recovering much faster than international flights. And actually they have returned to pre-epidemic levels.