China Readies for May Holiday Travel Surge

SHANGHAI–Between 200 and 265 million trips are expected to take place for China’s May Labor Day holiday, which starts on May 1, elevating domestic travel rates to above pre-pandemic levels.

China’s Ministry of Transport on Thursday said it expected 265 million travelers, while Trip.com, a leading travel platform had a slightly more conservative estimate of 200 million trips over the five-day break. 

As of April 14, hotel bookings had achieved a 43 percent rise compared to the same period in 2019, said Trip.com. Air ticket bookings also grew by 23 percent and the average price of an economy class air ticket has risen to 1,021 renminbi, or $157, compared to 2019 levels.

The number is expected to further boom closer to the holiday due to the trend of booking last minute. Travelers have adapted to going on short notice to accommodate for the volatility of changing COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The upward trend spells good news for the travel and retail industry alike. Just before Chinese New Year, fears of a resurgence in COVID-19 across China set back domestic travel. Arrivals dove 69 percent compared to 2019, according to consultancy ForwardKeys but Qingming festival at the start of April saw a marked recovery and Labor Day has again become a significant national holiday. In 2008, it was cut back from a seven-day to a three-day break. It was extended to four days in 2019 and to five days in the last two years.

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The country’s southernmost city, Sanya, situated on the holiday island, Hainan, in the South China Sea, is proving exceptionally popular, with bookings currently 59.1 percent ahead of 2019 levels, according to the firm.

The gambling hub of Macau is also set to benefit as it is currently the only outbound destination where mainland Chinese residents are not required to perform a 14-day quarantine going both ways. The city has not had a local case for over a year. Currently, Labor Day holiday demand for the destination stands at 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Trip.com data.

Of those that plan to travel, an analysis shows that the share of group bookings is down from 17 percent in 2019 to 13 percent in 2021. By comparison, the proportion of people traveling solo or in pairs is up to 56 percent, compared to 52 percent in 2019.

“Surprise destination promotions, known locally as ‘blind boxes’, in which the traveller purchases a flight ticket to an unknown or surprise destination for a very cheap price, typically $10 to $15, have been a big hit,” ForwardKeys added.

“Following the launch of ‘plane ticket blind boxes’ by LY.com [another major online Chinese travel agent] in March, more than 10 million people took up the offer in a sale coinciding with the Qingming festival in early April, although not all purchases converted into flight tickets. Other leading online travel agents, such as Ctrip, Fliggy and Qunar, followed suit in the third week of April and LY.com has just completed a further round of blind box offers. The promotions have created considerable popular interest among young audiences on social media platforms.”

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