Covid fears, high prices curb Chinese group tours
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Covid fears, high prices curb Chinese group tours

Guangdong-based agent forecasts bookings this year will reach 50% of 2019 total

Locals and tourists visit Yaowarat, Bangkok's Chinatown, during the Chinese New Year celebrations on Jan 22, 2023. (Photo: Varuth Hirunyatheb)
Locals and tourists visit Yaowarat, Bangkok's Chinatown, during the Chinese New Year celebrations on Jan 22, 2023. (Photo: Varuth Hirunyatheb)

China's travel agencies have resumed promotion of overseas package tours in an effort to jump start the tourism sector, but they could face a hard time finding customers ready to travel abroad.

A trial for "flight ticket + hotel" packages to select countries started on Monday for the first time since China emerged from three years of coronavirus isolation on Jan 8.

Southeast Asian nations like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are among the 20 destinations included on the list that was decided by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

"The resumption has definitely brought a positive atmosphere to the industry," said Zou Feng, general manager of Guangdong CTS (Shenzhen) Travel Agency and the deputy director of the Guangdong Tourism Association. "From the perspective of tourist volume, Southeast Asia is the largest, so we are very happy to be able to resume tourism there.

"We expect tourism in 2023 to hopefully recover to about 50% of the level in 2019."

China closed its borders to nearly all travellers in March 2020, and imposed strict quarantine measures under its zero-Covid strategy, hammering the tourism sector.

Since reopening, hundreds of thousands of people have poured across mainland China's borders and the sector has shown signs of recovery - though numbers are well below pre-pandemic levels.

Tourism contributed about 11% of China's total gross domestic product in 2019, but by 2021 that had collapsed to about 3.96%.

China was also the world's largest source of outbound tourists before the pandemic, taking 170 million trips and contributing US$253 billion to the global economy in 2019.

"The world's largest international travel spender, is still on its recovery path, it will eventually return to global prominence," Natixis Asia Research said in a note on Tuesday. The world is set to receive an additional US$160 billion of tourism spending per annum after China's cross-border travel fully normalises, it said.

Chinese tourists walk from a plane upon their arrival during a welcoming ceremony at Phnom Penh International Airport in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Tuesday. (Photo: AFP)

Asia will benefit the most, capturing $103 billion or 64% of Chinese spending, while North America and Europe will attract $34 billion and $21 billion respectively, according to the research note.

Although the resumption of group tours is a positive sign, Zou said "revenge" spending is unlikely this month as many potential travellers "may need more time to consider".

"[Chinese] need to reassess the overseas environment and wait for prices to return to normal," said Zou, adding travel costs were still above 2019 levels.

Li Wei, a 29-year-old white-collar worker from Shanghai, said budgetary considerations were her biggest concern, especially as airline tickets are more expensive due to fewer flights.

"The price of the group tour package depends on the price of the flight ticket," Li said. "I will wait and see when more airlines have resumed their flights."

She would consider travelling in the second half of this year, after summer holidays, to avoid peak season crowds and prices.

Airlines are reopening international and regional routes to match growing demand.

China Southern Airlines, for example, has reopened 48 round-trip routes to 12 destination countries. China Eastern Airlines is expected to resume 60 international and regional routes, offering 410 flights per week, by the end of the month, with a focus on Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, according to China's main state-run television group CCTV on Wednesday.

Jiang Zhuohui, a 36-year-old schoolteacher from Shanghai, was a frequent traveller before the Covid-19 pandemic. But she has no intention to travel abroad during her short holiday period.

A possible new wave of coronavirus infections is a major factor contributing to her decision. "I would prefer to travel domestically now and continue to monitor the Covid situation," she said.

Zou said customers "frequently asked" about the coronavirus situation overseas and the prevention measures taken after arrival at a new destination.

Recovery would be gradual, he said, though he anticipated a boost in tourism during the second quarter.

"People have waited for three years, there is no need to rush," he said.

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