China tourism hit as Covid cases rise in popular locales

Many holidaymakers have ‘got used to it’

Travellers in protective suits wait at a railway station amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Shanghai on May 17, 2022. (Reuters photo)

HONG KONG: Some of the most popular travel destinations among Chinese tourists are seeing a resurgence in coronavirus cases, sapping away some of the summer fun just as the industry was recovering in the warm holiday-travel months.

But at this point, many holidaymakers appear to be taking the strict restrictions in stride, as their eagerness to travel has increasingly begun to outweigh the inconveniences they must face as a result of the nation’s zero-Covid policy that frequently results in lockdowns and mass-testing roll-outs, according to industry observers.

However, holiday itineraries have still been affected, and spending has been more curtailed in some destinations, negatively impacting local economies and that of the nation at large.

China’s smallest and southernmost province of Hainan – a tropical island with abundant beaches and resorts – has reported 1,602 symptomatic cases in August, as of Wednesday, as well as 852 asymptomatic cases. This has prompted local authorities to impose lockdowns in 11 cities, with the vast majority of commercial flights cancelled, resulting in about 178,000 tourists being stranded on the island.

Xinjiang, another popular summer destination full of idyllic settings, had recorded 536 asymptomatic cases in August, as of Tuesday, mostly in the Ili Kazakh autonomous prefecture – which is popular among Chinese tourists – and in the capital Urumqi.

Tibet, meanwhile, had registered 11 symptomatic cases this month, and 43 asymptomatic ones – its first recorded infections since 2020, as of Wednesday. The Himalayan region responded by imposing a lockdown in Shigatse city, a tourist destination bordering Nepal, India and Bhutan; and also a three-day lockdown in Ngari prefecture.

But these types of local lockdowns and infections are not expected to result in a nationwide pause in tourism, according to Song Haiyan, associate dean and chair professor with the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

“The tourism industry is still on the rise, especially since the relative impact [of the Omicron variant] on people’s health may be much lower [than earlier variants], so people may have gradually adapted,” Song said.

Gong Liuliu, a 32-year-old who works in the film industry, is currently among those under lockdown in Sanya, Hainan. But she’s trying not to let it get her down.

“The lockdown will not influence my travel plans any more,” she insisted. “I’ve got used to it; I will keep travelling.”

And Cyrus Wang, an incoming PhD student at the University of Hong Kong, arrived in Dali, Yunnan province, on Sunday as coronavirus cases were popping up in several tourist destinations. But the 24-year-old said: “I don’t see any sign of tightening measures” in the province other than in cities that border other provinces.

Most cities deemed to be at low risk of coronavirus outbreaks have been operating normally since Beijing loosened travel restrictions in recent months.

China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism imposed new directives in late May, allowing for the resumption of cross-province travel in low-risk areas, while also imposing a ban on excessive coronavirus-control measures that adversely affect tourism.

A month later, the National Health Commission similarly warned against implementing excessive lockdowns or quarantine measures in low-risk areas, and said local governments should not unreasonably extend lockdown periods in high-risk areas.

The policy moves served to boost the tourism industry significantly. According to official data, China’s tourism sector rebounded strongly in July after the two directives took effect, with tourist figures jumping 62.2%, month on month.

“China’s easing of Covid-19 travel restrictions has definitely fuelled the summer travel boom, as it has facilitated mobility significantly,” said Flora Zhou, director of corporate research at Fitch Ratings, adding that the impact on the tourism sector is expected to moderate as local governments try to avoid citywide lockdowns under the new rules.

Nonetheless, some holidaymakers have opted to stay close to home, not wanting to risk getting stuck in a lockdown situation in another province. That includes Jason Yang, a 23-year-old educator in Jilin province, who wrote on his WeChat social media page this week that he was visiting nearby Changbai Mountain and the Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture.

“I would have liked to go to Hainan, but because of the pandemic, it was safer to travel within [Jilin] province,” Yang said.

And an industry expert with travel agency Qunar said: “The pandemic now has little impact on the industry as a whole, because the percentage of short trips is now high.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, she also said recent data from her company indicates that the tourism impact has been “more on the long trips”.

That reflects a trend seen since the onset of the pandemic, where travel patterns and tourist demands have seen significant changes, according to Tao Zhou, managing director and head of the Hotels & Hospitality Group for Greater China at Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate services company.

He also noted that the summer holiday season looks to wind down in mid-August, particularly for families with children, since most schools have requirements that students not leave the area in the weeks before returning to school, to minimise the risk of infection.

However, uncertainties may remain in China’s tourism industry beyond the summer holiday season, as long as the zero-Covid policy remains in effect, according to Song.

“If you look around the world, including other tourist destinations in Asia, basically all of them have now gradually opened up completely, so I think [China] may … adapt itself – to gradually ease the tourism restrictions,” Song said, stressing the industry’s importance, especially in popular destinations were locals’ livelihoods are so closely tied to tourism.

“For them, the recovery of tourism is more important, so its development should be imperative.”