Kevin Frayer / Stringer via Getty Images
“I felt suffocated at home,” says 25-year old Ye Tiantian, who studies business management at Fudan University, Shanghai. She was among the people who scrapped plans to take a family holiday to Thailand during Golden Week at the start of May. It was safer, she believed, to stay within China. Ye started looking for tour groups to join, but most of them turned her down — they have been banned from taking customers outside their provinces. It was only near the end of April that she managed to find one company that allowed her to book.
She took a flight to Guizhou, famous for its “red tourism” sites (places associated with Communist history) and waterfalls. As part of a tour group of 30, she went through temperature checks at each tourist spot. But when they ate, it was from shared platters and they used communal serving utensils. Ye spent one evening searching virus symptoms online when she developed a slight cough.
In China, where coronavirus recovery is further along than anywhere else in the world, anxiety about the virus still affects people’s travel decisions. Official data shows only a smattering of new infections over the past month, but even so, 30 per cent of travellers chose destinations near home, confining their travel to within their own province. Becoming infected with coronavirus is one concern. Not knowing what restrictions and measures are in place in other provinces is another — though China’s central government in Beijing sets the overall direction, many decisions are left to local governments.
Jiang Ruru, who works in marketing for a fintech company in Chengdu, western China, found virus-related restrictions were different on holiday in Xi’an than in her home province. She had chosen Xi’an, famous for its terracotta warriors, because she had family there and could stay with them rather than book a hotel. She arrived on May 1, by train. Just a few weeks before, there would have been a mandatory empty seat next to her, but that policy had since been lifted. Adjacent seats could be booked, but the carriage she was in was not full.
In March, most places required travellers to show green health codes (an immunity passport-esque system) in public places, restaurants, and when taking the metro or buses. But with no new cases, traffic police don’t always bother to check codes in Jiang’s home city. That wasn’t the case in Xi’an, and she had to download the local health code app, using it when taking public transport.
Government precautions had relaxed, but Jiang had not. “I didn’t enjoy myself at all,” she says. The first day she arrived, she visited Xi’an’s Wild Goose Pagoda. “I thought there wouldn’t be many people, and that I should take the chance to get out. But once I arrived, there were just too many people. I got scared.” She still went out, but just in the evenings, booking a time-limited slot to stroll along the city wall.
Reserving ahead is now the norm for the kind of sites that make it into guidebooks. This may be because during the Qingming Festival, a long weekend from April 4, the first national holiday since the Lunar New Year, pictures of the crowds went viral on social media, as those living within Anhui province could visit Huangshan without booking ahead. Those managing the spot, known for its jutting pine trees and mountain peaks, issued four notices within five hours. The gist? Go somewhere else.
“People are worried about overseas travel, so they’re heading to domestic tourist sites instead”, says Zou Qiang, a fashion designer in Shanghai. Over the May holiday, there were serious traffic jams along the road that links Shanghai to Chongming Island. “It’s the closest place to Shanghai that is different to Shanghai,” says Zou. She said she would likely avoid any famous tourist spots within China, perhaps for the next two years. “The government hasn’t said the epidemic is over. There are still some cases.”
For work, she takes the train to Suzhou to visit the silk markets, and has started buying business-class tickets, since there are fewer people per carriage. Zou hasn’t travelled for leisure since the outbreak of the epidemic but is planning to visit Hangzhou (a two-hour drive from Shanghai) next month. “It’s safer to drive,” she says. “Even if it’s very unlikely you get infected, well, what if it does happen?” She isn’t alone. 65 per cent of tourists during the May holiday chose to drive.
Travel is picking up, but many are opting to stay at home. Over five days, there were 115 million tourist trips domestically, which amounted to 47.6 billion yuan in revenue (£5.4 billion), according to the China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. That was a 60 per cent drop in tourist numbers compared to the same time last year, even though the government added a day to this year’s May holiday, to five consecutive days. Tourism has made a partial recovery. Ten jurisdictions received over 10 million tourists. This slow recovery is a dire signal of what might happen later this year in places like the UK and US, which are further behind in their recovery plan and are still mapping out what post-lockdown travelling will entail. Those that were holding on to the hope of a tropical summer holiday this year might find themselves, like Chinese tourists, looking far closer to home.
Average prices for flights were the lowest in five years, said Lan Xiang, vice president of popular booking site Qunar.com. When everyone in China has time off, prices usually spike. A greater proportion of younger travellers, who might otherwise have been put off by the high prices that usually accompany national holidays, have made trips. Local governments have issued consumer coupons to encourage spending. For instance, in Chengdu, tourists got up to four vouchers where you could get 20 yuan off every 60 yuan spent in local shops or restaurants.
Even so, smaller operators, particularly those that used to rely on international routes are finding it more difficult to survive.
Travel agent Zhu Yuanyuan would usually spend February organising shopping tours and hotel stays in Thailand for Chinese tourists. This year, the virus prevented her from selling trips. Instead she sold latex pillows through her WeChat. Zhu’s company had to change its offering completely from international itineraries to domestic. Over the May holiday, she saw no uptick in the orders they got. “I’m ready to change jobs,” said Zhu. “We can’t compete with local companies on prices.”
Liang Jianzhang, CEO of one of China’s biggest travel companies Ctrip, is more bullish on the tourism industry. He is pushing tourism virtually – personally visiting hotels and promoting them through livestreams. In one livestream to drum up business, Liang has a long beard stuck to his chin and wears Tang dynasty robes. In another, he tries rapping. Covid-19 gave a boost to livestreaming sites, which though already popular, became a place for people to post joke videos about quarantine, and now, to sell local products. Liang used his livestreams to get watchers to book 520,000 hotel rooms.
Still, most travellers are still wary about going to places that used to be virus hotspots. Hubei province, the source of the outbreak, attracted 7 million tourists but its top-rated scenic spots saw footfall decrease by over 80 per cent compared to last year. The livestream effect, some hope, will rub off on the area and encourage more people to come. The government has state media selling produce from Hubei farmers. Some of China’s most famous livestreamers were recruited for this task, like Li Jiaqi, who can sell 15,000 lipsticks in five minutes.
But travellers are still wary. “The whole atmosphere in Wuhan is still tense,” said one resident, who lives in Wuhan and took the May holiday as a chance to get out. To do this, Wuhan residents must test negative for the virus and have a green health code. When she flew out, there were only a few people at Wuhan’s Tianhe airport. She puts this down to caution about the risk of flying or high-speed rail, and also news about discrimination against people from Hubei.
Her destination was Shenzhen. There, she walked up the mountain and saw that people were taking off their masks to take a breath. Later that day, she got a haircut. The hairdresser asked her where she was from, and looked palpably nervous when hearing Wuhan. But after hearing about her negative result, she was bombarded with questions about what had happened. Caution continues. But also, for now, do holidays.
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