Know before you go: China’s travel comeback

In December, the Chinese government ended its zero-tolerance approach towards COVID-19. The end of containment measures included reopening China’s borders to international travel. Travelers may be eager to get going, but the travel won’t be seamless.

As of January 8, arriving travelers don’t have to quarantine; more flights and airline capacity will be allowed; and visas will be granted to business travelers and students (but not yet to tourists). Travelers and travel teams can access BCD Travel’s award-wining Information Hub for real-time travel information and trip planning for China and around the world.

Visa and passport hurdles

BCD’s Jonathon Kao cautioned in a Skift interview that companies wanting to restart business trips will face delays as employees will struggle to secure the right travel documents. “China has suspended passport renewals in the past three years, so now travelers are rushing to have their new passports issued,” said Kao, managing director, Greater China at BCD Travel. “Visas are also an issue as most have expired and some of the major embassies, like the U.S., Germany and Japan, were closed in the last few weeks due to increasing cases of COVID in China leading to staffing issues.”

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Governments wary of COVID but readying for China arrivals

Countries are preparing for a surge in China arrivals. Some have responded by reinstating COVID containment measures for travelers from China, and, in some cases, from other countries. In a repeat of the early days of the pandemic, the response is fragmented and inconsistent, adding to the complexity facing travelers. While authorities have laid out their testing requirements, they’re less clear about the consequences of a positive test result.

In Italy, testing on arrival is compulsory for travelers from China, though it’s largely for surveillance purposes and to detect new variants. Italy has not said if infected passengers will face quarantine. Italy’s membership in the Schengen free travel area poses a risk. Quite simply, travelers may arrive from China in another Schengen country and continue their journey to Italy without testing. Italy has urged the European Union to impose a bloc-wide testing requirement on arrivals from China. In Spain, arrivals from China must provide a negative test result or prove they’ve been fully vaccinated. Spain joined Italy in calling for a common policy towards China.

Travelers from China aren’t the only ones subject to the reinstated requirements. India reintroduced mandatory RT-PCR testing for travelers arriving from China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. Anyone testing positive will be placed under quarantine. 

A rapid return to tourism

After excluding China’s special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macau, Japan and Thailand had been the top destinations for Chinese travelers before the pandemic, accounting for 13%and 15% of their trips, respectively. South Korea and Vietnam were also popular destinations, each accounting for 8% of Chinese outbound travel. If familiar travel preferences are retained in 2023, many Asian markets can expect a big rise in visits from China.

Availability and pricing pressures

In those markets, however, a sudden surge in arrivals from China could increase pressure on availability and pricing. By comparing hotel occupancy to its pre-pandemic level, it’s clear that some markets have more capacity spare to absorb this demand than others. Those most reliant on China seem to have rooms spare, but there could be shortages in South Korea and Thailand.

Outside of Asia, the U.S., Russia and France may prove to be popular destinations for Chinese travelers.

Air travel

China’s reopening bodes well for its domestic air travel but international air travel will see a weaker recovery, according to findings in the December 2022 Airline Industry Outlook and Update from IATA.

Domestic trips account for almost 80% of air travel in the Chinese market. This segment was insulated from the worst effects of the pandemic, with 2020’s 37% drop in demand much less than the 87% slump seen in international travel. Following the easing of domestic restrictions, IATA now expects a full recovery in demand by 2023, a year earlier than previously forecasted. International travel’s recovery will be slower and weaker. By 2025, rather than being just 10% below their pre-pandemic levels, IATA now believes passenger numbers will be 23% below them.

Some of the analysis in this article may be based on data sourced from third parties. For questions or more information, contact Jonathan Kao via LinkedIn.

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