Tuesday, 20 Oct 2020

China’s ‘Golden Week’ Kicks Off in Boost to Battered Tourism Industry

Chinese travelers are expected to fan out across the country in droves, even as anxiety about the virus and the economy lingers.

By Vivian Wang

Along the Great Wall, extra security guards have been deployed to deter rowdy tourists. Hotel bookings in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, have risen 600 percent from the same period last year. In Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak began late last year, visitor demand for the city’s Yellow Crane Tower has been so high that the landmark sits atop a major travel agency’s list of the “Country’s Hottest Scenic Spots.”

China has kicked off Golden Week, the annual spree of shopping and travel built around the Oct. 1 National Day celebrations, and the first major holiday since the country brought its epidemic more or less under control.

In any year, the outlay of the weeklong holiday is a closely watched barometer of the country’s economic health. This year it may be especially so, offering the clearest measure yet of China’s recovery from the pandemic as people squeeze into train cars, crowd into ancient temples, and do everything else that people in many other countries can still only dream of.

The early signs seem to confirm two trends. First: China has returned to near normalcy with remarkable speed. And second: Even so, the ripple effects of the pandemic are hard to shake off.

The week will also reflect how the pandemic has reshaped travel, turning China’s increasingly global tourists back inward. Most years, millions of Chinese go overseas during the holiday, but this year, they have little option but to stay closer to home.

China’s official tourism research institute has predicted that 550 million domestic trips will be made during the eight-day holiday, which this year coincides with the Mid-Autumn Festival. Though impressive, that is still only about 70 percent of the number in the same period last year, reflecting the sizable number of people being kept home by economic insecurity or lingering fear of infection.

Official restrictions, though loosened, also remain. Tickets for Beijing’s Forbidden City are sold out, but capacity is limited to 75 percent. And even as the authorities encouraged people to get on the road, some schools said they would grant only half the week off, or required students to obtain advance permission to leave campus.

Still, the tourism industry was bracing for an onslaught.

“The energy has been pent-up for too long,” said Lisa Li, a manager at a Shanghai travel agency. “So we can predict that this National Day will not be relaxing at all.”

While the rest of the world still struggles to tame the virus, China has not reported any locally transmitted symptomatic cases since Aug. 15. Most foreigners are not allowed to enter the country unless they have valid residence permits, but inside, factories, shopping malls and even luxury auto shows have whirred back to life. Beijing recently stopped requiring people to wear face masks at all times; in Wuhan, a massive elbow-to-elbow pool party grabbed international attention.

The recovery has been enabled in part by the same strenuous, top-down tactics that Chinese officials used to control the virus. The authorities were already urging companies to get back to work in February and March, though the virus was still spreading domestically. Factories dutifully fired back up, though few consumers were buying.

Gradually, though, people’s confidence revived, and officials turned their attention toward restarting the retail and tourism sectors. Over the summer, several airlines advertised passes that would grant passengers unlimited flights within a fixed time period. Tourist attractions, especially in Wuhan, offered free admission.

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