China’s travellers look towards reopening after years at home

Travel bookings in China have soared since Beijing announced it will reopen the borders from January 8.

China airport
Many Chinese are hoping to travel overseas in the New Year for the first time since the start of the pandemic [File: Tingshu Wang/Reuters]

Beijing, China – Mandy Yang, a marketing professional in Beijing, is all set to travel abroad once China’s borders reopen on January 8.

Yang, 42, and her family renewed their passports in November and have recently been looking for flights to Chiang Mai in Thailand.

For Yang, like many other Chinese, it will be her first overseas trip since China slammed its borders shut in March 2020.

“Once I travel, I will want to experience local customs and cuisine,” Yang told Al Jazeera. “I don’t have to buy luxury items, but I will choose to spend my money on four or five-star hotels.”

Not only does Yang appreciate the history and culture of Chiang Mai, which was founded in the 13th century as the capital of the Lan Na Kingdom, but she was also impressed to see Thailand’s tourism ministry propose offering free COVID-19 vaccine boosters to attract tourists. On China’s social media platform WeChat, articles about the so-called “free vaccine package” have been attracting considerable attention.

“The strategies might be different, but the bottom line here is these countries want to keep their citizens healthy and safe first,” said Yang, adding that she planned to get a booster shot during her trip. “Only then can tourists feel safe as well.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic plunged the country into isolation, China was the world’s largest outbound tourism market, with its tourists spending more than $127.5bn in 2019.

After China’s announcement on Tuesday that it would scrap quarantine for arrivals as part of the unwinding of its strict “zero-COVID” policy, posted a 254 percent increase in outbound bookings compared with the previous day.

On Wednesday, China’s immigration authorities announced that they would also resume the processing of passport applications and issuance of entry and exit permits for travellers bound to and from Hong Kong, which has a separate immigration system from the Chinese mainland.

After nearly three years stuck at home, however, China’s travellers face a growing list of restrictions overseas.

The United States, South Korea, Japan, India, Italy, and Taiwan have introduced COVID tests for travellers from China in recent days amid concerns surging cases in the country could lead to the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. Chinese state media have labelled the measures “discriminatory”, while some health experts have questioned their necessity.

While Thailand, which welcomed more than 10 million Chinese visitors annually before the pandemic, has not announced any new restrictions, the prospect of a large influx of travellers with COVID-19 has prompted some unease in the Southeast Asian country.

“We should have some guards up … and tests should be administered to find out what kind of variants are coming in from China to find out if they are more severe than the variants that have been found in Thailand,” Chaturon Chaisang, a former deputy prime minister and a senior member of the Pheu Thai main opposition party, was quoted as saying in the Thai Enquirer on Tuesday.

China airport
China was the world’s largest outbound tourism market before the pandemic, with its tourists spending more than $127.5bn in 2019 [File: Tingshu Wang/Reuters]

A 32-year-old university counsellor in Beijing, who asked to remain anonymous, said she had planned to visit Japan this spring but was put off by the restrictions.

“I really want to visit Tokyo, but when I saw the news on Weibo about the restrictions, I knew that it wasn’t the right time to go there,” she told Al Jazeera. “There’s nothing I can do about it. I might stay in Beijing or go somewhere in China to travel this summer.”

Leon Liu, who operates a number of travel agencies in China, said he considers the measures being taken by other countries “very normal and understandable” and he does not expect them to last a long time. Liu said he expects a “buffer period” of three to six months after the Chinese New Year festivities before Chinese tourists can return to pre-pandemic levels of travel.

“Most airlines I have talked to say they plan for an April rebound,” Liu told Al Jazeera. “In our case, we have hired new employees and began training them to prepare for the tourists who will travel abroad.”

Liu said he does not expect the tourism industry to see a strong rebound during the “buffer period” because of the potential for sudden changes in regulations.

Crystal Zhou, a tour operator in Beijing, said her company is still reeling from the downturn of the past three years.

Zhou said she has yet to see a substantial uptick in bookings, although she has received more inquiries from guests seeking information about visas, flight tickets and travel rules overseas.

For now, she is cautious about the effect of China’s slated reopening.

“Of course, we are happy with the reopening, but on the other hand, we are really worried about the health of our guests because there hasn’t been such a quick change of policies before,” Zhou told Al Jazeera.

Despite the imminent lifting of border restrictions, Liu has been advising his customers to “stay in China and spend the upcoming Spring Festival holiday with family”.

“Wait for the situation to normalise first,” he said. “It is the best for everyone.”

As for Yang, who is still searching for the cheapest tickets to Thailand, she hopes the ease of pre-pandemic travel returns with a bang in 2023.

“I hope that the changes like testing and quarantine won’t happen again,” she said. “I want to live and travel the same as before. After all, I am fortunate to be able to go out now.”

Source: Al Jazeera