Travel plunges 70% as Covid-19 hampers Chinese New Year festivities

While most of China saw travel numbers plummet, Hainan island experienced a tourist boom

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The large family gatherings that unite relatives from across China were off for many this New Year as millions opted to stay home for last month's celebration, new research shared exclusively with The National revealed on Monday.

In 2019, more than 2.9 billion journeys were made, via car, rail and air, over the Chinese New Year celebrations, but the pandemic over the last year cut that dramatically.

As China battled a growing wave of Covid-19 infections in the weeks leading to the New Year holiday on February 11, authorities heightened restrictions to discourage movement during the country’s busiest travel season.

The number of journeys nearly halved to just over 1.4 billion, state media reported.

And a new report by travel analytics firm FordwardKeys, shared exclusively with The National, found that residents largely stayed home, and marked the holiday in new ways.

Domestic travel bookings plunged 70 per cent from 2019 levels, the last year that travel was at normal pre-pandemic levels.

Xing Fan, 28, has always celebrated the Chinese New Year with her parents and grandparents.

In previous years, she would help cook a feast of traditional Chinese foods, savoured by the family before they walked off the meal with a scenic stroll through her hometown of Xian in central China.

This year, Xing, a PhD student, was alone in Leeds, England, where she is a visiting scholar. Unable to return home, her celebration went digital.

But, she says, the video chats didn’t quite capture the holiday spirit.

"Maybe for this year, Chinese New Year is just a normal day of 2021," Xing told The National.

“But I did make some delicious dumplings for myself,” she added happily.

Maybe for this year, Chinese New Year is just a normal day of 2021

Domestic travel during the fortnight before the New Year, which is traditionally a busy period for Chinese people returning home to spend the holiday with their families, was down by 62.3 per cent this year.

In the weeks before the New Year, Chinese authorities rolled out measures to keep people home.

Lockdowns, travel curbs and mass testing were introduced in response to a January surge, which initially hit Hebei province surrounding Beijing the hardest, but later took root in the northern provinces of Heilongjiang and neighbouring Jilin.

Shanghai was also battling its own wave of infections as authorities raised the restriction levels in various parts of the city from low to medium risk.

Nationally, cases rose from between 30 and 60 a day in late December to 124 on January 24.

China has managed to keep Covid-19 outbreaks under control by introducing aggressive measures at the first sign of rising infections.

As a result, holiday travel to China’s most populous cities, Shanghai and Beijing, was down significantly.

Northern destinations, well-known for winter sports, were also hit.

“From a travel perspective, this Chinese New Year has been dreadful. Excluding Sanya, no major destination in China managed to get close to half the number of domestic visitors it received in 2019,” said Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights at ForwardKeys.

Sanya, a beach resort region on the southernmost point of Hainan island in the South China Sea, proved to be the most resilient domestic travel destination this year, receiving 66 per cent as many visitors as it did in 2019.

Sanya was the rare exception to the rule, as tourists flocked to the ‘Hawaii of the East’.

The tropical island is known for being a holiday and shopping destination, with luxury hotels and a sprawling assortment of duty-free shops. The government has also introduced policies to incentive visitors to the shopping hub, such as providing a service to post goods back to the mainland.

This year’s seven day holiday generated $231.9 million in revenue for Hainan island, a doubling of sales from 2019, according to the Moodie Davitt Report, a travel-retail newsletter.

News on February 1 that travellers from low-risk areas did not need a PCR test before visiting the island spurred ticket sales for Sanya. From February 4, daily sales even outpaced the same period in 2019’s, the ForwardKeys report found.

Crowds pour into Sanya for CNY. Courtesy The Moodie Davitt Report

While the overall drop in travel in China was severe, it was not as bad as expected.

By the time Chinese New Year began, authorities managed to tame the surging infections and were able to ease some restrictions. This resulted in a sudden surge in last-minute bookings across China.

Tickets for domestic flights hit five-year lows, potentially enticing last-minute buys, according to travel platform Qunar, who reported the average flight sold on their website cost $100.

For those who did stay home, parcels appear to have provided a connection to distant family and friends.

Data from China Post shows that 660 million parcels were delivered around the country during the seven day holiday, up 260 per cent from the same period last year.

After more than a year of Covid-19, Mr Ponti said there is “a powerful pent-up demand to travel”.

He expects this demand will be seen this spring during China’s Labour Day holiday in May.

As of February 19, flight tickets issued for the Labour Day holiday were only 8 per cent behind where they were at the same time in 2019.