Lunar New Year tourism hopes fizzle as Chinese stay home

BANGKOK (AP) — A hoped-for boom in Chinese tourism in Asia over next week’s Lunar New Year holidays looks set to be more of a blip as most travelers opt to stay inside China if they go anywhere.

From the beaches of Bali to Hokkaido’s powdery ski slopes, the hordes of Chinese often seen in pre-COVID days will still be missing, tour operators say.

It’s a bitter disappointment for many businesses that had been hoping lean pandemic times were over after Beijing relaxed restrictions on travel and stopped requiring weeks-long quarantines. Still, bookings for overseas travel have skyrocketed, suggesting it’s only a matter of time until the industry recovers.

“I think the tourists will return around the end of February or early March at the earliest,” said Sisdivachr Cheewarattaporn, president of the Thai Travel Agents Association, noting that many Chinese lack passports, flights are limited and tour operators are still gearing up to handle group travel.

COVID-19 risks are another big factor as outbreaks persist following the policy about-face in China, he said in an interview. “People are possibly not ready, or just getting ready.”

For now, the Chinese territories of Macao and Hong Kong appear to be the most favored destinations.

Just days before Sunday’s start of the Lunar New Year, iconic tourist spots in the former Portuguese colony, like historic Senado Square and the Ruins of St. Paul’s, were packed. Gambling floors at two major casinos were largely full, with groups of Chinese visitors sitting around the craps tables.

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

Kathy Lin was visiting from Shanghai, partly because it was easy to get a visa but also because she was concerned about the risks of catching COVID-19. “I don’t dare to travel overseas yet,” she said as she and a friend took photos near the ruins, originally the 17th century Church of Mater Dei.

That worry is keeping many would-be vacation goers at home even after China relaxed “zero COVID” restrictions that sought to isolate all cases with mass testing and onerous quarantines.

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

Cong Yitao, an auditor living in Beijing, wasn’t worried about catching the virus since his whole family has already had COVID-19. But he was put off by testing restrictions and other limits imposed by some countries, including the US, Japan, South Korea and Australia, after China loosened its pandemic precautions.

“It looks like many countries don’t welcome us,” said Cong, who instead was planning to head for a subtropical destination in China, like Hainan island or Xishuangbanna, to enjoy some warm weather.

According to Trip.com, a major travel services company, overseas travel bookings for the Jan. 21-27 Lunar New Year holidays were up more than five-fold. But that was up from almost nothing the year before, when China’s borders were closed to most travelers.

Reservations for travel to Southeast Asia were up 10-fold, with Thailand a top choice, followed by Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia.

Travel to other favorite places, like the tropical resort island of Bali and Australia, has been constrained by a lack of flights. But that is changing, with new flights being added daily.

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

Tourism Australia forecasts that spending by international travelers will surpass pre-pandemic levels within a year’s time. Before the disruptions of COVID-19, Chinese accounted for almost one-third of tourist spending, nearly $9 billion.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport has increased staffing to cope with more than 140,000 arrivals a day during the Lunar New Year rush, although only individual Chinese travelers will be coming for now — group tours from China have yet to resume.

As a brilliant orange sun set behind ancient Wat Arun, beside Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river, a Shanghai man who would only give his surname, Zhang, posed with a companion in colorful traditional silken Thai costumes.

“It’s very cold in China, and Thailand has summer weather,” said Zhang, adding that he knew many people who had booked tickets to get away from his hometown’s cold, damp weather.

Still, for many Chinese, the allure of world travel has been eclipsed, for now, by a desire to head to their hometowns and catch up with their families, nearly three years exactly since the first major coronavirus outbreak struck in the central city of Wuhan in one of the biggest catastrophes of modern times.

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

“There’s still a lot of time remaining in our lifetimes, 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 Macao. News assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing and Associated Press journalists Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Tassanee Vejpongsa and Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul in Bangkok, and Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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