Chinese Travel Is Set to Return. The Question Is, When?

When the first Chinese tourists landed at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok this month, they were greeted like celebrities with welcome banners, flowers, gifts, and a scrum of reporters and photographers.

It was the moment that hotels, airlines, tour operators and government officials had long been waiting for — the reopening of China’s borders after nearly three years of pandemic restrictions that effectively cut the world off from Chinese travelers, once the largest source of global tourism revenue.

“It is very exciting to visit warm beautiful places again,” said Hua Liu, 34, a graphic designer from Shanghai, who was among the first visitors to Thailand, where she took a two-week beach vacation late this month, as part of a Lunar New Year trip. “I will make up for the lost time,” she said in a telephone interview. Her plan: “Stay at nice hotels, book spa treatments, eat at fine restaurants and buy nice gifts for myself and my family.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed international travel in 2020, China sent more travelers overseas than any other market, with about 150 million Chinese tourists spending $277 billion abroad in 2018, according to a study by the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the China Tourism Academy. That outflow halted in 2020 and in the last year, even as countries around the world eased travel restrictions, China maintained an international travel ban for its citizens as part of its “zero Covid” policy.

But on Jan. 8, the Chinese government opened its borders, allowing foreign travelers to enter and Chinese residents to go overseas. Some in the travel industry were predicting a flood of international Chinese travelers after search interest for outbound flights from mainland China increased by 83 percent between Dec. 26 and Jan. 5, with international flight bookings up 59 percent in the same period, according to the Chinese online travel agency Ctrip.

But while there has been a bump in tourism to nearby destinations, including Macau, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore, farther-flung destinations are still waiting. In addition to high levels of Covid cases within China, Chinese travelers face long delays in getting passports and visas, high prices for international flights and a lack of capacity, since many carriers cut flights during China’s long lockdown. As of Friday, the number of airline seats available on direct flights from China to Britain in January was at about eight percent of those available in 2019, according to VisitBritain, the official tourist board. The first direct flight scheduled between China and Switzerland on Jan. 26 was canceled because of a lack of passengers.

Thailand gets ready

Before the pandemic, busloads of up to 700 Chinese tourists daily crowded into Maetaeng Elephant Park in the low-slung hills of northern Thailand, about an hour north of Chiang Mai.

Understand the Situation in China

The Chinese government cast aside its restrictive “zero Covid” policy, which had set off mass protests that were a rare challenge to Communist Party leadership.

  • Rapid Spread: Since China abandoned its strict Covid rules, the intensity and magnitude of the country’s outbreak has remained largely a mystery. But a picture is emerging of the virus spreading like wildfire.
  • A Tense Lunar New Year: For millions of holiday travelers, the joy of finally seeing far-flung loved ones without the risk of getting caught in a lockdown is laced with anxiety.
  • Digital Finger-Pointing: The Communist Party’s efforts to limit discord over its sudden “zero Covid” pivot are being challenged with increasing rancor on the internet.
  • Economic Challenges: Years of Covid lockdowns took a brutal toll on Chinese businesses. Now, the rapid spread of the virus after a chaotic reopening has deprived them of workers and customers.

Borprit Chailert, the park’s manager, is eagerly awaiting their return, but so far only about 40 Chinese vacationers have shown up, he said.

When they do arrive, renting elephants from nearby villagers to fortify his herd of 76 won’t be difficult, Mr. Chailert said. But it’s hard to know when to bring on more workers and where to find them, since many left the tourist region and switched jobs when tourism stopped, he said.

“If we want to hire 100 people today, we can’t do that because we’re not sure,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe in the next two months the Chinese government says, ‘We’re closing the border again.’”

With its economy heavily dependent on tourism, Thailand lost out on tens of billions of dollars in spending by Chinese tourists over the last three years. The Chiang Mai office of the Tourism Authority estimates that the city, known for its stunning Buddhist temples and heavy dependence on tourism, will welcome back about 600,000 Chinese visitors this year who will spend about $230 million — about half of the total from 2019.

The real numbers won’t start until the second quarter, people in the Thai travel sector say. Many Chinese tourists traditionally come to Thailand on group tours (they made up about half of the Chinese visitors in Chiang Mai), and the Chinese government is not letting tour operators restart their businesses until Feb. 6, and then only under a pilot program with about two dozen countries, including Thailand. For now, only independent Chinese tourists who can afford the expensive airfare are taking trips.

But not everyone is keen to welcome back group tours. Even before Covid, operators in Thailand and China saw a reversal of the group tour trend and a shift toward more tech-savvy Chinese travelers armed with booking and experience apps taking trips on their own.

Over the last decade, while the overall numbers of Chinese tourists rose, group tours dwindled amid a crackdown on cheap so-called zero-dollar tours in Phuket, the 40-mile long island on the Thai peninsula’s west coast. Often illegal operations dodging taxes, the tours typically were controlled by Chinese investors who owned buses, hotels, restaurants, spas and gift shops, siphoning off tourist spending from locals. They were known for pressuring guests to buy overpriced souvenirs at the shops they controlled.

“I don’t think that we will have more of the big tour groups,” said Nantida Atiset, a hotel owner in Phuket and the vice president of the Phuket Tourist Association. “I think they will come back, of course. It’s just a matter of how big they will come back.”

Pricey flights to London and Australia

In London, another popular destination for Chinese travelers, more than 300,000 people visited Chinatown last week for the first Lunar New Year parade since the coronavirus, but few Chinese tourists were present.

Feng Yang, the manager of Shanghai Family, a Chinese restaurant in central London, said that he didn’t expect any travelers from China during the Lunar New Year period, but was hopeful they would return in a few months. “They’re still affected by the coronavirus,” Mr. Yang said, adding that his business would most likely not suffer because about 85 percent of his customers are Chinese students from the surrounding universities, who aren’t going back to China for the holiday.

Revelers in the town of Dali town in Yunnan Province, China, pose for photographs earlier this month, soon after Covid restrictions were eased.Credit…Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The slow growth can be blamed on a combination of factors. “There aren’t many flights, they will tend to be more expensive, and people will need a visa to come,” said Patricia Yates, the chief executive of VisitBritain, adding that the return of Chinese travelers to Britain would be a “slow build” this year with higher expectations in 2024. Round-trip flights to London from China are currently running at around $1,300 and Ms. Yates expects the number of seats on flights from China to Britain to grow to only 30 percent of 2019 capacity by June. “That is really necessary to get people on planes,” she said.

Before the pandemic, China was Australia’s biggest visitor market in terms of spending. The country received 1.4 million Chinese visitors in 2019 who spent $12.4 billion.

Chinese travelers have started to return to visit friends and family, but travel operators do not expect an influx of leisure travelers for several months, as flights are expensive and Australia is not on China’s approved list for group tour destinations. Australia also requires coronavirus testing for Chinese travelers. This month, round-trip flights between China and Australia range between $1,800 and $3,000. Before the pandemic, Chinese tourists were known for being willing to spend money, said James Shen, the owner of Odyssey Travel in Melbourne. “Chinese tourists are the ones who say, ‘I don’t want to take a boat, I want to take a helicopter,’” he said. “It might be a 10-minute journey, 400 Australian dollars — very expensive — but Chinese tourists will say, ‘I want to take this, not the boat, because maybe I’ll get seasick.’”

While many travel operators are eager for their return, some worry that the industry may not be able to keep up with a new influx of tourists.

“The industry disappeared for two years; it’ll be very hard for it to recover,” said Rick Liu, the owner of TanTan Holiday travel agency in Melbourne. Many drivers and tour guides found other work while the tourism industry was on pause, he added, and hiring them back may be difficult.

“I’m happy that we’ll have more tourists, but I’m also a bit worried about whether we’ll be able to accommodate them properly, provide them with high enough quality service,” he added. “We’re a bit out of practice.”

Yan Zhuang contributed reporting from Melbourne, Australia, and Derrick Bryson Taylor from London.

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