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China outbound flight bookings at 15 pct of pre-pandemic levels despite recent surge

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China’s outbound flight bookings were at only 15 percent of pre-pandemic levels in the week after the country announced it would reopen its borders, despite a 192 percent jump from the same period last year, travel data firm ForwardKeys said on Thursday.

Low airline capacity, high air fares, new pre-flight COVID-19 testing requirements by many countries and a backlog of passport and visa applications pose challenges as the industry looks to recovery, ForwardKeys Vice President Insights Olivier Ponti said in a statement.

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“Although Chinese New Year is likely to see international travel rebound for the first time in three years, we will need to wait longer before we see a resurgence in Chinese tourists exploring the globe,” he added.

Some online travel agencies had touted multi-fold surges in searches and bookings since the Dec. 26 border announcement but did not provide data that compares the level of interest to 2019.

ForwardKeys data shows that average outbound fares from China were 160 percent higher than 2019 in December, though that represented a downward trend since June when flight capacity was even lower and quarantine was required.

Airlines are running only 11 percent of pre-pandemic international capacity to and from China in January, according to Cirium, though the figure is expected to rise to around 25 percent by April based in current data.

An official at China’s aviation regulator forecast the international market could recover to around 80 percent of 2019 capacity levels by the end of the year, China Daily reported on Thursday.

Ponti said his firm expected the Chinese outbound market would pick up strongly in the second quarter when airlines schedule capacity for spring and summer, which includes the May holiday, Dragon Boat festival in June and summer holidays.

The most popular destinations booked between Dec. 26 and Jan. 3 were Macau, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Singapore, Bangkok, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Frankfurt, with 67 percent of the bookings made for the Lunar New Year holiday period between Jan. 7 and Feb. 15, ForwardKeys said.

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