Demand for travel jumps as China loosens COVID-19 restrictions

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A surge in holiday bookings shows China’s vast population is ready and hungry for travel as the country dismantles border controls and emerges from nearly three years of self-imposed isolation.

After the announcement that travelers won’t be subject to quarantine from January 8 onwards, bookings for outbound flights from mainland China jumped 254 percent Tuesday morning from the day before, according to Group Ltd. data.

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The top five destinations were Singapore, with a 600 percent increase in bookings, followed by about 400 percent for South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand.

China’s COVID-zero policy effectively stopped overseas leisure trips throughout the pandemic, with people urged to stay in the country “unless absolutely necessary for work, study or compassionate reasons.”

Travel visas to Hong Kong haven’t been issued since early 2020 and authorities stopped granting new passports in August 2021 for any unnecessary and non-urgent reasons.

China is now preparing to issue new passports and Hong Kong permits again, and opening the floodgates to three years of pent-up travel demand. Within half an hour of the government’s reopening policy announcement, searches for overseas destinations shot up by 1,000 percent, hitting a three-year high, according to Macau and Hong Kong were among the top searches.

The week-long Lunar New Year holiday at the end of January presents a good opportunity to fly overseas — searches related to travel packages during the break climbed 600 percent.

It will still take time for Chinese tourist numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels, when they made up the largest group and were some of the biggest spenders.

Japan requires a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival for travelers from China, while Malaysia has imposed new tracking and surveillance measures.

The US is weighing similar steps due to mounting concerns over renewed risk of infections as China battles COVID-19 — almost 37 million people in the country may have been infected with the virus on a single day last week, according to estimates from the government’s top health authority.

High air fares could also keep a lid on travel, according to some of the responses to a poll on Weibo, which is similar to Twitter.

Demand for travel into China is rising too. Bookings for inbound flights to mainland China increased by 412 percent Tuesday morning from a day earlier, according to data. Many of the Chinese diaspora across the globe — including overseas students — have been kept out due to strict quarantine requirements and haven’t seen family and friends in years.

“I’ve waited so long for this day,” an overseas student wrote on Weibo. “Finally getting to go home!”

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