Holiday crowds swarm Beijing’s Tiananmen Square during 2019’s Labor Day Golden Week. Photo: Xinhua

Chinese people’s pent-up demand for travel and revelry, suppressed in previous national holidays and celebrations, is set to be unleashed.

The nation’s travel, catering and hospitality industries  are salivating at the prospect of a surge in business unseen since the start of the pandemic as people pack for trips and book tickets and tables for the five-day national break starting from Saturday. 

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism said on Thursday that no fewer than 200 million travelers would be out and about in the first week of May, according to nationwide train, plane and hotel bookings.

The number of trips to be made during this year’s Labor Day Golden Week would exceed the corresponding period of 2019, Xinhua quoted Minister Hu Heping as saying, hinting that China’s domestic travel and related consumption would claw back lost revenues and even smash pre-Covid records. 

China’s popular accommodation reservation and ticketing agency Qunar saw a 30% surge in bookings this week compared with two years ago.

Air tickets from Beijing and Shanghai to popular tourist hangouts like the tropical beach city of Sanya have become hard to come by, with average prices of economy seats fetching 3,000 yuan (US$463) on the buoyant demand. Qunar has predicted that this year’s Labor Day break would be the most traveled one in history. 

The travel rush is fueled by previous bans and de-facto lockdowns. 

Tourists, mostly masked, find it impossible to maintain space as the Great Wall reopened during the Qingming Festival in April. Photo: Xinhua

In February, Beijing opted to take no chances, with its sweeping Covid-prevention mandate forcing the population indoors during the festive period.

Most Chinese marked the Lunar New Year that month at home when Beijing attached more health inspection and quarantine red tape and cut back on flights and train services. People were urged to hold off homecoming journeys and vacations until warmer months when the contagion might recede. 

Then came a high watermark in trips and consumption during the three-day Qingming Festival in early April, when relaxed measures brought out about 100 million travelers.

The upcoming Golden Week in May will double that nationwide figure with a widespread mood for a long-overdue getaway and as Beijing pivots to help the economy benefit from people’s purchasing power. 

No fewer than a million vacationers from other provinces will descend on the southern resort island of Hainan in the next five days to bask in further relaxation of restrictions.

Major urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai will welcome even more visitors as the 150,000 online booking slots to enter the Forbidden City during the holidays are snapped up in minutes, according to Xinhua. 

Exotic towns in the far-west Xinjiang region and the casino hub of Macau, whose border with mainland China reopened since last year, are among the new favorites for travelers, on top of popular destinations such as Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Xian, Sanya and Xiamen. 

Attractions in Shanghai, including its Disneyland that sprawls over several square kilometers, have already been pulling in visitors this week.

Shoppers queue outside a Louis Vuitton store in a new upscale mall in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo. The mall’s operator is optimistic about record takings during the upcoming Golden Week. Photo: Asia Times
Travelers past turnstiles at a train station in eastern China on Thursday. There will be a holiday spike in trips across the nation. Photo: Xinhua

Total merchandise volume and service takings during Golden Week will be among the key metrics closely watched as a gauge of domestic consumption, which was a drag on China’s economic rebound in the first quarter.

Gross retail volume in the first three months of this year increased 4.2% from 2019’s baseline to 10.52 trillion yuan, latest statistics show. That pace pales in comparison when China’s GDP growth in the same period hit two digits unseen in more than a decade over the level in the first quarter of 2019. 

Yet amid the mass movement of people, the tight balancing act is to fire up consumption while keeping Covid in check as imported cases involving mutant strains have already surfaced across China.

Cadres in Shanghai and other key destinations already teeming with visitors say they now face a quandary over Covid control and consumption, as Beijing appears to be vacillating between public health and the economy in numerous directives that set out priorities.

Frontline officials say there is constantly a seesaw between sporadic case flareups and hasty relaxation of travel and gathering restrictions and that Beijing must give clearer instructions, especially in the run-up to national holidays. 

On Thursday, the Chinese State Council requested, on the orders of Premier Li Keqiang, the establishment of a joint coordination mechanism involving transport, commerce and public security ministries and health authorities, including the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, to keep tabs on large crowds and to police shopping malls and theme parks to stagger entry.

The coastal province of Zhejiang and the western megacity of Chongqing both logged imported cases this week in which returning Chinese crew menbers and workers came down with the mutant strain prevalent in India.

All the confirmed patients and their close contacts were swiftly isolated. Chinese CDC’s chief infectious disease expert Wu Zunyou reportedly reminded Li of the risks during the CDC’s weekly report to the premier and lobbied for an interdepartmental response mechanism. 

Wu told a China Central Television program on Covid that he understood that people had been hankering for trips and outings but he would refrain from visiting more than one destination during the holidays, urging people to get vaccinated first. 

About 240 million doses have been administered as of Wednesday in China, with its immunization rate still alarmingly low in a country of 1.3 billion-plus people.  

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