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Lunar New Year tourism hopes plummet as Chinese stay at home

BANGKOK (AP) — An expected boom in Chinese tourism to Asia over next week’s Lunar New Year holiday is expected to be more of a blow, as most travelers choose to stay in China if they go anywhere. .

From the beaches of Bali to the powdery ski slopes of Hokkaido, the hordes of Chinese people often seen in pre-COVID times will forever be missing, tour operators say.

It’s a bitter disappointment for many companies who hoped the pandemic periods were over after Beijing eased travel restrictions and stopped requiring multi-week quarantines. Still, overseas travel bookings have soared, suggesting it’s only a matter of time before the industry recovers.

“I think tourists will come back around late February or early March at the earliest,” said Sisdivachr Cheewarattaporn, president of the Thai Travel Agents Association, noting that many Chinese do not have passports, flights are limited and that tour operators are always preparing to manage group travel.

The risks of COVID-19 are another important factor as outbreaks linger after the political about-face in China, he said in an interview. “People may not be ready, or just getting ready.”

For now, the Chinese territories of Macau and Hong Kong appear to be the most preferred destinations.

Just days before the Lunar New Year begins on Sunday, iconic tourist sites in the former Portuguese colony, such as historic Senado Square and the ruins of St. Paul, were packed. The gaming halls of two major casinos were largely full, with groups of Chinese visitors seated around the craps tables.

“I’m so busy every day and I don’t have time to rest,” said souvenir shop owner Lee Hong-soi. He said sales had recovered to around 70% to 80% of pre-pandemic days after next to nothing just a few weeks ago.

Kathy Lin was from Shanghai, partly because it was easy to get a visa, but also because she was concerned about the risks of catching COVID-19. “I don’t dare to travel abroad yet,” she said as she and a friend took photos near the ruins, originally the 17th-century Mater Dei church.

That worry is keeping many would-be vacationers at home even after China eased “zero COVID” restrictions that aimed to isolate all cases with mass testing and onerous quarantines.

“The elderly in my family have not been infected and I don’t want to take any risks. There is also the possibility of being infected again with other variants,” said Zheng Xiaoli, 44, an elevator company employee in Guangzhou, southern China. Africa was on her to-do list before the pandemic, but despite her desire to travel abroad, she said: “There are still uncertainties, so I will exercise restraint.”

Cong Yitao, a listener living in Beijing, was not afraid of catching the virus since his entire family has already had COVID-19. But he was discouraged by testing restrictions and other limits imposed by some countries, including the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia, after China relaxed its pandemic precautions.

“It seems many countries are not welcoming us,” said Cong, who instead planned to head to a subtropical destination in China, such as Hainan Island or Xishuangbanna, to take advantage of the warm weather.

According to Trip.com, a major travel services company, outbound travel bookings for the Lunar New Year holiday from January 21 to 27 have increased more than fivefold. But that was next to nothing the year before, when China’s borders were closed to most travellers.

Southeast Asian travel bookings increased 10-fold, with Thailand being the top pick, followed by Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia.

Trips to other favorite spots, like the tropical island of Bali and Australia, have been limited by a lack of flights. But that is changing, with new flights added daily.

“You will definitely see an increase from last year when China was still closed, but I don’t think you will see a huge increase in outbound travelers to different destinations in Asia-Pacific, let alone Europe or of the Americas,” said Haiyan Song, professor of international tourism at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Tourism Australia predicts spending by international travelers will exceed pre-pandemic levels within a year. Prior to the COVID-19 disruptions, Chinese accounted for nearly a third of tourism spending, or nearly $9 billion.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport has increased its staff to cope with more than 140,000 arrivals a day during the Lunar New Year rush, although only individual Chinese travelers will come for now – group trips from China have not yet resumed.

As a bright orange sun set behind the ancient Wat Arun on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, a Shanghai man who would only give his last name, Zhang, posed with a companion in traditional Thai costumes colored in silk.

“It’s very cold in China and Thailand has a summer climate,” Zhang said, adding that he knows many people who have booked tickets to get away from the cold and wet weather in his hometown.

Yet for many Chinese, the lure of world travel has been overshadowed, for now, by a desire to travel to their hometown and catch up with family, nearly exactly three years since the first major outbreak. coronavirus that hit the central city of Wuhan. in one of the greatest disasters of modern times.

Isabelle Wang, a finance worker in Beijing, has traveled to Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia. After three years of a slower-paced life during the pandemic, her priority is reuniting with her family in Shangrao, a city in south-central China.

“There’s still plenty of time left in our lives, and there will definitely be opportunities to go overseas later when we want to,” she said.

___

Leung reported from Hong Kong and Macao. Press assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing and Associated Press reporters Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Tassanee Vejpongsa and Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul in Bangkok, and Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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