Monday, 26 Oct 2020

All eyes on travel for Golden Week in China after easing of Covid-19 rules

BEIJING – Self-confessed “travelholic” Minnie Liu is going on vacation, her first for the year, during the “Golden Week” holidays next month.

The 28-year-old finance executive, who went on eight trips of varying durations last year, wanted to do better than that this year but her plans were scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Now that the situation looks more stable, my friends and I are spending all the money we saved on a week-long Qinghai and Gansu holiday,” she said.

Ms Liu is not alone: the battered tourism sector is banking its recovery on the week-long holidays, which kicks off on Oct 1. The industry expects to see its first tourism boom of the year next week, making it the most important holiday weekend yet.

This year’s Golden Week, which always coincides with China’s National Day, will include the Mid-Autumn Festival.

While international travel is still impossible, the industry is hoping for last year’s record of 782 million domestic trips during the same period to be matched.

A key group of travellers will miss the fun this year though: college students.

To make up for lost curriculum time as a result of school closures during the pandemic, some universities have chosen to shorten vacation time so students can catch up on their studies.

The pandemic has also fundamentally changed holiday habits: Travellers are now more conscious about health and hygiene, prefer to travel in smaller groups and are willing to spend more.

Research from the Trip.com Group, which runs several reservation platforms, found that driving holidays had become extremely popular, with rental vehicles already fully booked in some locations.

“Especially popular are western regions like Yunnan and Xinjiang, as well as Hainan, because these places are more suitable for self-driving holidays,” Mr Peng Liang of Trip.com Group’s data research centre told The Straits Times.

Domestic travellers are becoming sophisticated and are not only willing to spend more but expect unique experiences, he said.

“Yet, at the same time, you have to bear in mind that there are many travellers who are getting on a plane for the first time, so regular tourist sites are still popular,” he said.

Nearly five months after China eased restrictions on inter-provincial travel, there remains pent up demand, especially among those who had saved up for long overseas holidays.

Domestic luxury travel is trending very strongly, said Ms Sherona Shng, general manager of Four Seasons Hotel in Shenzhen.

The Four Seasons group started to see business picking up following the easing of inter-provincial travel in May and expects over 80 per cent occupancy for the rest of the year.

“However, traveller habits have changed since and in the post-Covid period, we are seeing a much shorter transient booking window in which a majority of guests are booking their stays only several days in advance or even on the day itself,” she added.

Similarly for the Shangri-La Group, which has half of its property portfolio located in China, the resurgence of leisure and corporate travel has seen occupancy hitting 48 per cent in July.

“Tier-2 cities such as Hangzhou, Lhasa, Diqing, Hainan and Qinhuangdao benefited from pent up staycation demand,” said a spokesman for the group, which operates the Shangri-La, Kerry and JEN brands in China.

But not all tour operators will benefit from the surge in local travellers.

Most Chinese travelling domestically tend to do their bookings online, eschewing the need for guides or travel companies, said travel agency owner Song Kai.

“Of course, the industry is big and others who operate hotels, inns and local businesses will benefit,” he said.

“But there’s hardly any need to hire a guide because most people know their way around, so agencies like ours don’t get a share of the pie.”

Mr Song said that his company lost about two million yuan (S$400,000) during the pandemic but has tried to continue paying his staff a minimum wage.

The agency specialises in high-end foreign travel, with trips including fine dining experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants, Mr Song said.

“We have 20,000 fans who are always interested in what we’re doing next. We know that when travel reopens, they’ll come right back,” he said.

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