Zhang Mei: Where Does Tourism in China Now Stand?
Zhang Mei is the founder of WildChina, an award-winning travel company, and author of “Travels Through Dali With a Leg of Ham.”
One evening a month ago, my husband walked into my study and asked, “Could you update your resume please? I don’t think it’s a bad idea to start conversations. I am not suggesting you find a job, but it’s always good to explore.”
I broke down in tears. WildChina, the travel business I started, turned 20 in July. We’re proud that we’ve been a trailblazer in exploring China in depth. But instead of enjoying the yearlong celebrations as planned, we cut everybody’s salary by half starting March 1, and we didn’t see a penny in cash flow in the first half of the year. We’ve been wondering: How long can we last? Is this it? Is it really time to polish up the resume?
A similar conversation has taken place in many households across the United States and countries that have been hit hard by the pandemic. The death toll from Covid-19 reached 150,000 on July 29 in the United States, and we aren’t seeing any sign that it’s leveling off.
But I am here to offer a few words of comfort: There is light at the end of the tunnel if we look at the tourism recovery in China as a possible sign of what is to come for the global industry.
On July 14, China issued guidelines to open up interprovincial travel. The next day, the online travel agency Trip.com reported a 500% increase in flight searches. As of July 20, 14 provinces are open to travelers from other provinces. Combined with the beginning of students’ summer vacation, travelers are out in legion, saving China’s tourism industry.
There are different sets of numbers measuring the recovery, but the general trend is clear: China is experiencing a healthy U-shaped recovery. The number of trips made by domestic travelers during April’s Tomb Sweeping Day holiday was only 40% of the total during the same period in 2019. However, that figure had risen to around 50% for the Labor Day holiday on May 1. It was also around 50% for the Dragon Boat Festival holiday in June, which was partially impacted by the second wave outbreak in Beijing at the time. The industry hopes to get the number up to 90% this year.
There is a caveat, though. Schools are requiring that all students stay in their home cities for at least two weeks before school starts on Sept. 1. So the numbers will likely drop after Aug. 15.
Where are people traveling? Most clusters are in the Yangtze River Delta around Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta around Guangzhou, plus Sanya on the southern island province of Hainan Island for a luxury stay in a hotel on the beach. The adventurous have flocked to far flung destinations in the far-western provinces of Gansu and Qinghai. It was a shock for me to learn that we had to reroute several clients because there was a shortage of hotel rooms.
As expected, travelers are seeking to avoid city crowds and are instead going into nature for some fresh air. Rural villages that offer an idyllic setting and lifestyle are popular. Families with young kids and millennials have embraced RV camping, rafting and hiking.
Chinese travel agencies have pivoted quickly to cater to this change, offering short domestic trips in place of tour packages to Europe and Thailand. One agency in Southwest China’s Yunnan province sold a three-day, two-night tour to the neighboring province of Guizhou to 120 travelers for a whopping price of 400 yuan ($58) per person, with lodging, transportation, food and entrance fees all included. “The general manager of the travel agency came on the trip and told us that they had priced the tour well below cost just to get people moving again. The trip was a great value — cheap and good. I’d be happy to go again,” Zhang Minqiang, a resident of Yunnan’s capital of Kunming, told me.
Two surprise beneficiaries from the pandemic in China are Little Red Book and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, which are emerging as the most popular apps for user-generated travel content, replacing the industry giant Trip.com.
My unscientific guess is that young people in lockdown just have a lot more time to create short videos of their travels, and also more time to browse. The two apps are perfect platforms for short and sweet video teasers to make one itch to travel. Screen time is a parent’s enemy, but it’s gold on the internet.
So far, the recovery is limited to domestic travel within China. When will the curve happen to the larger world? Sadly, I think that’s going to be a while. Leisure travel is a luxury in life, not a necessity like toilet paper. People will need to feel safe before they travel for fun again.
Right now, three huge barriers stand in the way of Chinese travelers going global. The first is that the pandemic is still surging in many parts of the world. Second, many visa offices are closed due to the pandemic. Third, the Chinese government requires travelers returning from overseas to undergo a two-week quarantine.
Summer camp in Beijing.
So, will the travel industry be fundamentally different?
Yes, in some ways, and I think for the better. The pandemic has spurred the travel industry to embrace safer operational practices, such as United Airlines cranking up its high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems and Hilton partnering with Lysol to clean their hotel rooms. Many tour operators like Wilderness Travel, based in Berkeley, California, are embracing more flexible booking terms that give travelers much more freedom to book and cancel their trips. The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) has also issued health and safety guidelines that promote health screenings and require enhanced sanitation. These are all great initiatives that are long overdue, and I hope they are here to stay.
From the point of view of the traveler, coronavirus-induced changes are also wonderful. Like I mentioned above, travelers are embracing nature more. People are also spending less time in transit and staying longer at each destination. For example, renters in Stinson Beach in California have to rent for one month or longer, and more travelers are discovering that a slower pace is enjoyable. People are also traveling less, even for business. I used to fly between the U.S, and China on a monthly basis. Now I find it perfectly OK to conduct business via video chat. (Well, I don’t want to push that one too far. Not going to China for seven months this time has been too long.)
What remains unchanged is the desire to explore. I have no doubt that the longer the lull, the stronger the rebound. International travel is no exception.
So for now, it’s in the hands of all of us to wear masks and maintain social distance. The more we work together now, the faster we will be back on the road. Getting the pandemic under control or having a vaccine, whichever comes first, will enable everyone in China and elsewhere to travel the globe again.
Stay safe and wear your mask.
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Zhang Mei is the founder of WildChina, an award-winning travel company, and author of “Travels Through Dali With a Leg of Ham,” out via Penguin Books. She is a native of Southwest China’s Yunnan province and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. Follow Mei’s travels on Instagram at @wildchinamei
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