Covid Forces China’s Vacationers to Spend ‘Golden Week’ Nearer to Dwelling

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Covid Forces China's Tourists to Spend 'Golden Week' Closer to Home

Additional security guards were deployed along the Great Wall of China to deter noisy tourists. Hotel bookings in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, are up 600 percent over the same period last year. In Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak began late last year, visitor demand for the city's Yellow Crane Tower was so high that the landmark is on a major travel agency's list of “hottest scenic spots in the country”.

China has kicked off Golden Week, the annual shopping and travel event that coincides with the National Day celebrations on October 1st and the first major holiday since the country's more or less controlled epidemic.

Each year, the spending on the weeklong vacation is a closely watched barometer of the country's economic health. This year this may be the case in particular and may offer the clearest measure of China's recovery from the pandemic to date, with people squeezing into railroad cars, crowding into old temples and doing everything else that people in many other countries can only dream of .

The first signs seem to confirm two trends. First, China has returned to normal at a remarkable rate. And second, the ripple effects of the pandemic are still difficult to shake off.

The week will also reflect how the pandemic has transformed travel and brought China's increasingly global tourists back inside. Most years, millions of Chinese people go overseas on vacation, but this year they have no choice but to stay closer to home.

China's official tourism research institute has predicted 550 million domestic trips will be made during the eight-day vacation that coincides with the Mid-Autumn Festival this year. Though impressive, this is still only about 70 percent of the number in the same period last year, reflecting the sizable number of people staying at home due to economic uncertainty or persistent fear of infection.

Although the official restrictions have been relaxed, they remain in place. Tickets to Beijing's Forbidden City are sold out, but capacity is limited to 75 percent. And even as authorities encouraged people to get out there, some schools said they would only allow half a week off or asked students to get pre-approved permission to leave campus.

Still, the tourism industry was preparing for a rush.

"The energy has been piling up for too long," said Lisa Li, a manager at a travel agency in Shanghai. "So we can predict that this national holiday will not be relaxing at all."

While the rest of the world is still struggling to tame the virus, China has not reported any locally transmitted symptomatic cases since Aug. 15. Most foreigners are only allowed to enter the country if they have valid residence permits, but factories and shopping malls and even luxury car shows have been brought back to life. Beijing recently stopped requiring people to wear face masks at all times. In Wuhan, a large elbow-to-elbow pool party attracted international attention.

The recovery was made possible in part by the same grueling top-down tactic that Chinese officials used to control the virus. Authorities have already urged companies to get back to work in February and March, although the virus is still spreading domestically. Factories dutifully fired up again, even though few consumers bought.

Gradually, however, people's confidence revived and officials turned their attention to the resumption of the retail and tourism sectors. Over the summer, several airlines promoted passes that allowed passengers to fly indefinitely within a set period of time. Tourist attractions, especially in Wuhan, offered free entry.

The central government declared the period from September 9th to October 8th the “National Month of Consumer Promotion” with the slogan “Enjoy consumption for a beautiful life”.

At the beginning of the vacation, these efforts seem to be paying off. While many lower-income people, especially migrant workers, still struggle to find work, the middle-class and wealthy Chinese who drive the country's economy are eager to let go.

According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, more than seven million people left the country during Golden Week last year. This year, the demand for hotels in remote locations like Lhasa has increased, reflecting a desire to still find "far-flung places," according to a report from Ctrip, an online travel agency.

Moran Li and her family did not leave their hometown of Hangzhou in eastern China this year. As Golden Week approached, Ms. Li, who works in the hotel industry, had hoped to finally take a trip. She has her sights set on Sanya, a city rich in palm trees in China's tropical island province of Hainan.

But every hotel she checked was sold out for both the vacation and the next two weekends. She finally booked a room for the weekend of October 30th. This week, she, her husband and 22-month-old son, plan to visit her husband's hometown not far from Hangzhou instead.

Ms. Li said she was concerned that her son might get the coronavirus, but the situation in China is manageable. "In the end we have to get him out sometime," she said.

Others like Liu Zihan, 23, did not wait for the Golden Week. After graduating from college that year, Ms. Liu spent two months across the country taking advantage of the unlimited flight package.

She visited 17 cities that flew from the industrial metropolis of Shenzhen in the southeast to the walled old town Dali in the southwest, from the humid Hangzhou to the arid Tibetan plateau. She recently finished her trip in Hainan, where she used duty free guidelines to top up Kiehl's face masks and Armani lip gloss.

For the vacation, however, she planned to visit her boyfriend in the eastern city of Changzhou and stay there for a week. "There are too many people to go anywhere on National Day," she said.

Even so, the frenzy of getting out contradicts some less rosy realities. Although the number of domestic passengers is expected to increase 10 percent over the same period last year during Golden Week, the average price for tickets on many routes was lower than in previous years, according to Chinese news, which quoted Qunar, an online travel company.

While five hotels in the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Macau were sold out for Golden Week at the beginning of September, a week later there were only three, which, according to a survey by Morgan Stanley analysts, reflected a high cancellation volume. The decline could reflect overly optimistic projections by tour groups, the analysts said.

Ms. Li, the Shanghai travel agent, said that even when tour groups go out, many are made up of older travelers who tend to spend less and often qualify for discounted entrance fees.

The travel industry is still far from fully recovering, she said. "Every business is desperate to think about how to survive, not how to make money."

To make matters worse, many schools were unwilling to let their students travel. Almost 200 million Chinese students have returned to face-to-face learning.

Gon Hong, a resident of Hangzhou, had planned to take his 10-year-old son to Guangzhou or Chengdu for vacation, especially because he had a voucher for a Chengdu hotel that included cheaper room rates and in-room meals.

In a chat group for parents at his son's school, however, the news soon circulated that they had to get the school's permission to take their children out of town. Mr. Hong decided to bring his son closer to home while he was roller skating.

Universities also put in place measures to limit student movement, sometimes at the last minute. China West Normal University in Sichuan province announced on Monday that the eight-day holiday will be reduced to five non-consecutive days for public health reasons. The first of these days, so the announcement, was September 27 – the day before.

"I don't know if I was traveling back in time or lost my memory – how did I not know on the 27th that I was already on vacation?" One student wrote in response to Weibo, a Twitter-like platform.

However, China's experience shows that once the virus is under control, consumption can rise again relatively quickly, said Zhang Tianbing, head of the Asia-Pacific consumer goods and retail team at Deloitte, the global consulting firm. "That probably gives you a bit of hope and optimism for other countries," he said.

Mr. Zhang, who lives in Shanghai, said he has no plans to travel during the vacation. He had spent much of the year in the UK because of the pandemic and had only recently returned to China.

He intended to spend the next few days, he said, and tried to revitalize his garden.

Coral Yang contributed to the research.

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