Caixin
Oct 06, 2020 10:00 AM
ECONOMY

Update: China Forgets Covid-19 for a Week as Half a Billion Hit the Road

Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

What pandemic?

After staying cooped up at home for much of this year — held back by travel restrictions and personal concerns about catching the virus while traveling — Chinese took to the road in droves during this year’s weeklong National Day as if scrambling to make up for lost time.

The travel surge resulted in familiar scenes of packed tourist attractions, congested highways and expensive hotels — things not seen in such big numbers since last year’s Oct. 1 holiday, the last major one before the pandemic struck. While the numbers this year weren’t 100% back to normal, they were still fast approaching levels from the past.

Domestic venues are benefitting in particular, since two-week quarantines awaiting anyone who returns from abroad are discouraging most overseas tourism.

With the Covid-19 pandemic largely under control in China, the Golden Week holiday is putting on display the country’s confidence in its economic rebound and its public health measures. Through the first four days of the week-long holiday that started Oct. 1, some 425 million people traveled domestically, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, nearly 80% of last year’s throngs.

Spending on the first day of the holiday also got off to a healthy start, with tourism-related venues raking in 76.65 billion yuan ($11.3 billion), nearly 70% of last year’s level. The ministry-affiliated China Tourism Academy had previously forecast that people would take about 550 million trips during the eight-day holiday, down about 30% from the previous year.

The surge of activity stands in stark contrast to the rest of the world — the global tourism industry is expected to lose at least $1.2 trillion in 2020 — and underscores the relative strength of China’s economic recovery. As of September, the OECD forecast a 1.8% expansion this year, putting China alone among the Group of 20 on pace to expand.

That positive outlook assumes the country can avoid another wave of coronavirus and the aggressive lockdowns China’s used to quash it. As millions crisscross the country during the holiday that marks the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, no virus tests or quarantines required, the risks grow. Late last month, China opened its borders to foreign nationals holding valid residence permits.

“There is undoubtedly a risk in allowing mass tourism to resume and, in some ways, this is an early exercise in what the rest of the world will have to go through as global travel restarts next year,” said Nicholas Thomas, associate professor in health security at the City University of Hong Kong.

China hasn’t reported any local virus infections since Aug. 15, though it found two asymptomatic cases in late September, and the government has eased almost all of its peak-Covid travel restrictions. The ban on group tours was lifted in the middle of July, every district in every city has been designated ‘low-risk,’ and coronavirus test results are no longer required for cross-province travel.

“We have gone at least six weeks without reporting a single confirmed case domestically, which means the environment accessible by ordinary people is virus free,” said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center of Disease Control and Prevention, at a briefing in Beijing last week. “The chance of you running into an asymptomatic person is very very low, almost negligible.”

Other countries are more reluctant to endorse a return to 2019-style vacationing. South Korea, for example, which has seen daily new cases hover around 100 a day, tightened social distancing rules for two weeks of back-to-back holidays starting in late September. European cities and countries are instituting new restrictions in an effort to fight a new wave of the pandemic sparked by summer travel.

In China, tourists seem confident. “I’m not worried about the virus,” said 35-year-old Zora Li, who plans to fly Beijing to the southern Chinese province of Guangxi with her two children and her parents, their first trip of 2020. “I don’t have a choice. The kids can only travel during vacation.”

Sold Out

She wasn’t the only one ready for a change of scenery. Flight bookings for the holiday were up 11% compared with 2019, according to a report from travel data and analytics agency Cirium. Reservations for domestic hotels began rising near the end of August, and prices soared: As of Sept. 10, the average hotel booking cost around 20% more this year compared with last year, according to data released by travel booking site Qunar.com Inc.

Ride-hailing apps Didi and Dida crashed as the holiday period began on Sept. 30, according to state-run Xinhua News Agency. Some 11.7 million passengers traveled by train on Oct. 3, down just 15% from 2019.

Tickets at the Badaling section of the Great Wall sold out by mid-morning on Oct. 3, the first time daily tickets have sold out since late March. Popular sites from the Forbidden City in Beijing to the Mogao Grottoes in Gansu province were fully booked before the holiday started.

The surge of renewed interest in travel led many sites to report actual increases in searches and bookings. Alibaba Group Holding’s Ltd.’s Feizhu travel service reported its hotel booking volume was up 50% this year from a year earlier, while its flight bookings were roughly the same as last year. Rival site Qunar estimated its domestic air travel business would rise 10% from a year earlier to a record high. Popular destinations included many of China’s major cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Xi’an.

Despite the surge in interest, sites showed that prices still remain depressed below last year’s levels. Feizhu showed hotel prices during this year’s holiday were about 30% below what they were in 2019. There’s also still the potential for fallout from allowing so many people to resume travel all at once under the usual crowded conditions.

“We will only know how successful China has been 2-3 weeks after the holidays as we see how many new infections emerge,” Thomas said. “If they manage to avoid an upsurge in cases, it will be evidence that China is truly moving into a post-Covid period.”

Bloomberg contributed to this report.

Contact editor Yang Ge (geyang@caixin.com)

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