Will China reopen outbound travel soon?

CHIANG RAI, 9 February 2022: It’s exactly two years since China shut the gate on outbound travel, but travel firms and destinations are hopeful Chinese travellers will be back soon.

They are counting on a few brave forecasters who are confident some form of reopening is about to occur soon, possibly for non-essential travel limited to individual travellers. 

China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism ordered Chinese travel agents to stop the sale of outbound groups and package travel (hotel+airfare) in February 2020.

According to a Dragon Trail International update, released late last month, Ctrip’s chairman James Liang predicted China would relax international travel restrictions possibly by July 2022. Other more optimistic forecasters hope limited group tours inbound and outbound could resume after the close of the Beijing Winter Olympics, possibly by April.

Last month, China Tourism Academy forecasted outbound tourism would resume in 2022 and possibly climb from ground zero to recover 20% of the traffic recorded in 2019. The CTA forecast is considered the closest to an official source and could suggest a reopening for outbound and inbound tours is on the cards for 2022.

According to the Dragon Trail International’s update, Macau is the only destination outside mainland China where Chinese citizens can travel for leisure, with no quarantine on arrival or return.

“Adjustments to this policy are made regularly, based on if there are any outbreaks of Covid-19 in mainland China… “If there are, then travellers who have recently been in those areas are required to quarantine when they arrive in Macau. Travellers to Macau are allowed in through the Individual Visitor Scheme, so group tourism from mainland China is not operating yet as of January 2022.”

But the suggestion from China Tourism Academy that 2022 could close with China’s outbound tourism notching up 20% of the pre-Covid-19 performance offers a glimmer of hope that China is preparing to reboot its outbound travel engine.

Perhaps Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s government has a hint of when China will allow outbound travel to resume. This week it confirmed it was initiating “travel bubble talks with China and Malaysia in a bid to bring back tourists from the country’s two biggest supply markets. 

In 2019, Thailand welcomed just short of 11 million Chinese tourists who delivered an estimated THB543,707 million in tourism revenue. Suppose the Chinese Tourism Academy forecast on reopening outbound travel proves correct. In that case, a user-friendly travel lane between China and Thailand could generate around 2.2 million Chinese travellers by the close of 2022. That’s the best-case scenario.

Before Covid-19 crippled global tourism, China supplied to the world 145 million outbound visitors in 2019, a total that imploded to just 20 million in 2020.

Popular destinations in Asia can take heart from the latest trends measured by QYER, China’s largest outbound travel platform. The one-stop travel platform that claims to have 80 million registered users (primarily middle class Chinese) reports 68.3% of its users searched for information on outbound travel in 2021, up from just 40% in 2020.

The QYER report also confirmed that 94% of users said they wanted to travel after the pandemic stabilised, while 83.52% said they would book overseas travel within one year of the reopening.

Bubble troubles

Thailand plans to hold travel bubble talks with China and Malaysia this month, following last week’s reintroduction of the revised Test & Go scheme. It requires travellers to test twice in the space of five days during pre-paid hotel stays. It’s far from ideal. Users complain of hours wasted filling out forms or uploading certificates to the Thailand Pass app. It’s a poor advertisement for Thailand’s “Smart Hub” aspirations for anyone who has spent hours struggling to get their documents uploaded and accepted for consideration. One tech specialist called it “clunky.”

If the travel bubble proposal is to succeed it would need to skirt around the Thailand Pass bottleneck to stand a chance of winning the hearts of QYER’s travel community, and other social media savvy travellers. They would conclude the time-wasting Test & Go app was a no go. You could call it a serious deterrent and go elsewhere.

The top 10 international destinations for Qyer users once outbound travel resumes:

1) Japan
2) Thailand
3) Italy
4) Spain
5) Australia
6) USA
7) UK
8) France
9) South Korea
10) Singapore