Chinese travel bookings reviving, but slowly

High long-haul airfares and limited flight capacity put damper on May Day long holiday travel

published : 19 Apr 2023 at 14:33

Tourists from China dressed in traditional Thai costumes visit Wat Arun in Bangkok in January. (Photo: Reuters)

Bookings in China for trips abroad during the upcoming May Day holiday point to a continued recovery in travel to Asian countries, but the numbers remain far below pre-Covid levels, with long-haul airfares soaring and not enough flights available.

Overseas tour bookings for the coming holiday, which will last from April 29 until May 3 for many people, are up 157% from the beginning of April, according to Ctrip, the country’s largest online travel firm.

However, because airline capacity is yet to fully recover after China kept its borders shut for three years and underlying consumer demand remains weak, the numbers do not compare well with the heyday of Chinese outbound tourism.

In February, over 150,000 Chinese tourists travelled to Thailand, the latest figures from the Thai Ministry of Tourism show — a three-year high but still 85% below February 2019 levels.

Trips to Japan and South Korea have only recovered to between 5% and 10% of February 2019 levels.

“It mainly has to do with supply-side constraints in the air industry and tourism sector in destination countries,” said Sheana Yue, China economist at Capital Economics.

Thailand is the most popular destination for Chinese travellers, with the United States the only non-Asian destination in the top 10, to the disappointment of luxury boutiques on the shopping streets of Paris or Milan.

“There has been a lot of news in China about inflation in Europe and high energy prices,” said Ying Zhang, a research analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

In 2019, 155 million Chinese travelled abroad, spending $254.6 billion, or close to the gross domestic product (GDP) of Vietnam, according to estimates by Citi. Chinese tourists used to make up 10% of the arrivals to Europe from outside the continent.

Flights to Europe are up to 80% more expensive than before the pandemic, according to ForwardKeys, a travel data firm.

Meanwhile, prices for flights from mainland China to Southeast Asia dropped 49% in March from a year ago, according to the aviation data provider Flight Master.

A comeback in Chinese tourists is crucial for regional economies. They accounted for 30-35% of all arrivals into Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea in the summer of 2019, and 25% of all visitors to the Philippines.

In Thailand and the Philippines, their pre-pandemic contribution to economic growth was particularly significant.

Pre-pandemic, China was also Australia’s top source of tourists, but numbers following Beijing’s reopening of borders have only trickled back.

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