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Tourism hopes for the Lunar New Year are fading as the Chinese stay at home


BANGKOK (AP) — The expected boom in Chinese tourism in Asia during next week’s Lunar New Year holiday looks set to be more of a moment, with most travelers opting to stay in China if they go anywhere.

From the beaches of Bali to the powdery ski slopes of Hokkaido, the hordes of Chinese people common in the pre-Covid days will still be missing, tour operators say.

It’s a bitter disappointment for many businesses that had hoped the times of a poor pandemic were over after Beijing eased travel restrictions and stopped requiring weekly quarantines. Still, bookings for overseas travel have skyrocketed, suggesting it’s only a matter of time before the industry recovers.

“I think tourists will return at the end of February or early March at the earliest,” said Sisdivachr Chiwarathaporn, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agencies, noting that many Chinese do not have passports, flights are limited and tour operators are still preparing for managing group travel.

Risks from COVID-19 are another big factor as outbreaks persist after China’s return policy, he said in an interview. “People are probably not ready or just preparing.”

For now, the Chinese territories of Macau and Hong Kong seem to be the most preferred destinations.

Just days before the start of the Lunar New Year on Sunday, iconic tourist spots in the former Portuguese colony, such as the historic Senado Square and the ruins of St. Pavel, they were full. Gambling rooms in two large casinos were largely full, with groups of Chinese visitors perched around the dice tables.

“I’m so busy every day and I don’t have time to rest,” said souvenir shop owner Lee Hong-soi. He said sales have recovered to about 70%-80% of pre-pandemic days from next to nothing just weeks ago.

Cathy Lin was visiting from Shanghai, partly because it was easy to get a visa, but also because she was concerned about the risks of contracting COVID-19. “I still don’t dare to travel abroad,” she said as she and a friend took pictures near the ruins, originally the 17th-century Mater Dei church.

That concern has kept many vacationers at home even after China eased “zero COVID” restrictions that seek to isolate all cases with mass testing and heavy quarantines.

“The elderly in my family have not been infected and I don’t want to take any risks. There is also the possibility of being infected again by other variants,” said Zheng Xiaoli, 44, an employee of an elevator company in Guangzhou, southern China. Africa was on her bucket list before the pandemic, but despite her longing to travel abroad, she said: “There’s still uncertainty, so I’m going to exercise restraint.”

Kong Itao, an auditor living in Beijing, was not worried about catching the virus because his entire family already had COVID-19. But he has been pushed back by testing restrictions and other restrictions imposed by some countries, including the US, Japan, South Korea and Australia, after China relaxed its pandemic precautions.

“It seems that many countries do not accept us,” said Kong, who instead planned to head to a subtropical destination in China, such as Hainan Island or Xishuangbanna, to enjoy warm weather.

According to Trip.com, a major travel services company, overseas travel bookings for the January 21-27 Lunar New Year holiday have increased more than fivefold. But that was next to nothing the year before, when China’s borders were closed to most travelers.

Travel bookings to Southeast Asia have increased 10-fold, with Thailand the top choice, followed by Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia.

Travel to other favorite destinations, such as the tropical resort island of Bali and Australia, is limited by the lack of flights. But this is changing, with new flights being added daily.

“You will certainly see an increase compared to last year when China was still closed, but I don’t think you will see a huge influx of outbound passengers to various destinations in the Asia-Pacific region, let alone Europe or the Americas,” said Haiyan Song, a professor of international tourism at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Tourism Australia predicts international traveler spending will surpass pre-pandemic levels within a year. Before the COVID-19 disruptions, the Chinese accounted for nearly a third of tourism spending, nearly $9 billion.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport has increased staff to handle more than 140,000 arrivals a day during the Lunar New Year peak, although only individual Chinese travelers will be coming in for now – group tours from China have not yet resumed.

As a bright orange sun sets behind the ancient Wat Arun, next to the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, a man from Shanghai, who would give only his surname, Zhang, poses with a companion in colorful traditional Thai silk costumes.

“It’s very cold in China and it’s summer time in Thailand,” Zhang said, adding that he knows many people who have booked tickets to escape his hometown’s cold and wet weather.

Yet for many Chinese, the appeal of world travel has been overshadowed, for now, by the desire to head to their hometowns and catch up with their families, almost three years to the day since the first major outbreak of the coronavirus in the central city of Wuhan in one of the most – the great catastrophes of modern times.

Isabelle Wang, a financial worker in Beijing, has traveled to Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia. After three years of a slower life during the pandemic, her priority is to be reunited with her family in Shangrao, a city in south-central China.

“We still have a lot of time left in our lives and there will certainly be opportunities to go abroad later when we want to,” she said.

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Leung reported from Hong Kong and Macau. News assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing and Associated Press reporters Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Tasani Weipongsa and Chalida Ekwithayawechnukul in Bangkok and Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia contributed to this report.


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