Chinese Tourists Are Back, but Numbers Still Far From Pre-COVID Levels

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Joe Cash and Pasit Kongkunakornkul

BEIJING/BANGKOK, (Reuters) – Bookings for travel abroad in China during the upcoming May Day holidays point to a continued improvement in travel to Asian nations. However, numbers are still far below pre-COVID due to the high cost of long-haul flights and the lack of available flights.

Ctrip, China's biggest online travel company, reports that overseas tour bookings have increased 157% since the beginning of April.

The numbers are not comparable to the peak of Chinese outbound travel, as the airline capacity has yet to recover fully after China closed its borders for three years, and the consumer demand is still weak.

The latest figures from the Thai Ministry of Tourism reveal that over 150,000 Chinese tourists visited Thailand in February. This is a record high for the last three years, but still 85% lower than February 2019 levels.

The number of trips to Japan and South Korea has only recovered to between 5%-10% from February 2019 levels.

Sheana Yue is a China economist with Capital Economics.

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Thailand is the most popular destination. The United States is the only other non-Asian country in the top 10. Luxury boutiques on shopping streets in Paris and Milan are disappointed.

"There have been a lot news stories in China about the inflation in Europe and the high energy prices," said Ying Zhang a research analyst with Economist Intelligence Unit.

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Citi estimates that in 2019, 155 millions Chinese traveled abroad and spent $254.6 billion. This is close to the GDP for Vietnam. Chinese tourists used make up 10% or more of all European visitors from outside Europe.

Flight Master, a provider of aviation data, reports that the prices on flights from China mainland to Southeast Asia dropped by 49% from a year earlier in March.

The return of Chinese tourists is vital for the economies in the region. In the summer of 2019 they accounted for between 30-35% all arrivals in Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea, as well as 25% of visitors to Philippines.

Their contribution to the economic growth in Thailand and Philippines was especially significant.

China had been Australia's largest source of tourists before the pandemic. However, numbers have barely returned since Beijing reopened its borders.