Tourism to stoke holiday consumption
As brighter May beckons, customized travel products, premium services shine
With the spring blooming to its colorful glory amid balmy weather in the second half of April, up to 200 million wanderlust-bitten Chinese tourists, who had experienced lockdowns and social distancing over the past year, are expected to march out to a variety of domestic destinations during the five-day Labor Day holiday starting May 1.
They will ride the bounty of tailored travel products and premium services served by China's tourism industry amid expectations that the holiday could prove to be the hottest break ever for the domestic travel and hospitality markets since COVID-19, experts said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic increasingly brought under control in China and amid the country's move to stimulate domestic demand, tourism and hospitality industries are expected to be the biggest stokers of holiday consumption.
In the Chinese mainland, high-end hotel bookings accounted for more than 50 percent of total bookings for the holiday period, according to Trip.com Group, China's largest online travel agency.
Demand has been so intense that the Great 2021 Travel Rush caused a tsunami of online queries in the run-up to the holiday, resulting in crashing of servers hosting some online platforms peddling train tickets. In China, passengers can book train tickets online 15 days ahead of departure.
But similar spikes in queries and bookings were not uncommon at industry players offering travels, tours, air tickets, mobility solutions such as recreational vehicles (RVs), and accommodations like homestays and hotel rooms.
"This year, the domestic tourism industry will fully explore its resources to fuel spending and boost economic growth as international travel is yet to return to pre-pandemic levels," said Luo Xiang, an analyst at the LeadLeo Research Institute, a market research provider.
"Tourists are increasingly paying attention to the quality and experience of their trips. More operators should offer more high-quality, tailored products and premium services that cater to different groups of people."
China will continue to expand domestic demand, actively explore the growth potential of the domestic market, and encourage consumption in culture, travel and sports, said this year's Government Work Report delivered at the annual meeting of China's top legislature in March.
The high-quality development of the culture and tourism industries will also be a priority during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25).
Hotel room bookings for this year's Labor Day holiday surged more than 11 times on a yearly basis. The growth rate of bookings for long-haul, cross-province trips has surpassed that of trips to neighborhood areas for the first time since the pandemic, according to Fliggy, Alibaba's online travel arm.
"The domestic travel market is set to rebound to the level seen before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it can even exceed the pre-pandemic levels," said Gu Huimin, head of the School of Tourism Sciences at Beijing International Studies University.
The average price of a Labor Day holiday trip this year rose nearly 30 percent compared to the corresponding period of 2020. Specifically, the average price of flight tickets climbed more than 20 percent over the pre-pandemic level, Fliggy found.
Some economy-class flight tickets for journeys originating in Beijing for Sanya, Hainan province, on April 30 and May 1 have been sold out well in advance, and only business-class seats were still available two weeks before the holiday.
The scene is not very different for other domestic routes. Most flight tickets have been taken with only a few full-price economy-class seats still available, according to Qunar, a Beijing-based online travel agency.
"Right from the Spring Festival period in February, hotel room bookings for the Labor Day holiday in May started to increase significantly. That's because many cities had requested local residents to stay put wherever they are and reduce traveling during the Spring Festival, in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection. This created enormous pent-up demand for travel. With the situation now better, people want to travel," said Lan Xiang, data research director of Qunar.
Starting Wednesday, the number of travelers boarding flights will surge, with departures expected to peak on Friday, and recede a bit on May 1, Qunar found.
The rebound in domestic travel has boosted the confidence of market players who had a rough year in 2020. Still, travel agencies are waiting for pandemic-related curbs overseas to be lifted so that international travels could resume, which will further buoy their business.
For outbound trips, the popularity of the Macao Special Administrative Region peaked beyond the 2019 levels. Since September last year, Chinese mainland tourists were not subject to 14 days of quarantine on arrival in Macao, and could return to the Chinese mainland without any need for quarantine.
Since April, the person-time bookings of trips from the Chinese mainland to Macao soared a staggering more than 1,500 percent year-on-year, Fliggy found.
"The tourism sector has a long industrial chain, and it involves multiple segments such as catering, entertainment, transportation and shopping. Developing the tourism sector could drive the growth of other related sectors and create more jobs. It has great significance for the high-quality development of the national economy, social harmony and stability," said Fu Yifu, senior analyst at the Suning Institute of Finance.
"The return of the balmy weather and effective control over the pandemic situation in China have significantly boosted Chinese consumers' willingness to travel. Besides, sightseeing spots have established comprehensive security measures and pandemic response mechanisms," Fu said.
The profile of a typical traveler in China is getting increasingly younger. Among those who have booked Labor Day holiday trips, travelers born after 2000 have surged more than 570 percent year-on-year in number. Their growth rate topped other age groups, Fliggy found.
Besides visiting popular sightseeing spots, young people also like music festivals. Not surprisingly, more than 20 music festivals will be held nationwide during the Labor Day holiday, according to Alibaba's online ticketing platform Damai.
Self-driving trips also continue to set a trend. Bookings for holiday car rentals have surged more than 10 times year-on-year. Bookings for RVs spiked 540 percent year-on-year, according to Fliggy.
Moreover, nighttime trip bookings have risen along with daytime temperatures. Reservations for post-sunset leisure products surged 20 times year-on-year, it said.
Sightseeing trips for night views, night cruises in riverside cities, camping, nighttime visits to theme parks are now popular among young travelers.
Xi'an of Shaanxi province, Wuzhen of Zhejiang province, Chongqing, and Guilin of Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region figure among the bright hot spots on the nighttime tourism map, Fliggy found.
Nighttime fun enriches product portfolios of travel agencies as it is viewed as a value-added service. This, in turn, boosts other related sectors like restaurants, transportation and shopping near scenic spots, it said.
Dai Bin, president of the China Tourism Academy, said Chinese tourists are increasingly seeking personalized experiences and willing to slow down their pace of life to take in-depth trips. It's something akin to pausing and taking a deep breath, he said.
The internet is expected to further brighten the future prospects of the tourism sector by creating brand-new market segments.
"The consumption upgrade trend is expected to become the fundamental feature of the tourism market in the coming years. Smart travels that ride advanced technologies are foreseen grabbing more business opportunities. More seemingly sci-fi features will turn into reality," Dai said.