China’s outbound travel: A sleeping dragon stirs

SINGAPORE, 16 January 2023: ForwardKeys’s latest forward booking data confirms international travel during the Chinese New Year holiday season will rebound for the first time in three years, but the full resurgence in Chinese outbound travel remains further down the track.

The Chinese New Year holiday week gets underway on 22 January.

ForwardKeys VP Insights Olivier Ponti commented: “We will need to wait longer before we see a resurgence in Chinese tourists exploring the globe. The reasons are: First, the current scheduled international flight capacity is only at 10% of 2019’s level. Due to approval requirements for traffic rights and airport slots, airlines will find it difficult to gear back up in less than a few months. Second, ticket prices remain high, with average airfares in December 160% higher than in 2019. That said, there has been a downward trend since June, when quarantine was reduced from three weeks to seven days, and then to five days in November.”

“Third, some destinations, including the US, the UK, India, Qatar, Canada, Australia and all 27 EU member countries now require a pre-flight Covid-19 test for Chinese visitors; and others, such as Japan, South Korea and Italy, will impose testing on arrival and quarantine for those who test positive.

“Finally, a bottleneck in processing passport renewals and visa applications is likely; and some countries, such as South Korea and Japan, are restricting short-term visas for Chinese travellers until the end of this month.

“Right now, we expect the Chinese outbound market will pick up strongly in Q2 2023 when airlines schedule capacity for the spring and summer, which include the May holiday, Dragon Boat festival in June and summer holidays.”

China’s decisions to cut back on travel restrictions and ditch its zero-Covid policy triggered a surge in flight bookings.

On 7 December, Chinese authorities announced that a negative PCR test would no longer be required for air travel between provinces. Domestic flight bookings immediately surged 56% on the previous week and increased 69% the following week.

On 26 December, China removed all Covid-related restrictions on domestic air travel; and bookings surged again, reaching 50% of 2019’s level in the final week of the year.

As of 3 January, domestic flight bookings during the upcoming Chinese New Year period, 7 January – 15 February, were 71% behind pre-pandemic (2019) levels and 8% behind last year, with the most popular destinations being Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Kunming, Sanya, Shenzhen, Haikou, Guangzhou and Chongqing. Before the announcement on 7 December, they were 91% behind 2019.

China’s aviation regulator set in motion plans to restore flight capacity to 70% of pre-pandemic levels by 6 January and to 88% by 31 January. However, a full recovery is not possible immediately, as the industry needs some time to re-hire staff and meet all flight safety and service requirements.

The cap on the number of international flights to China and quarantine measures were removed on 8 January. In addition, Chinese citizens can now renew expired passports and apply for new ones.

Outbound flight bookings between 26 December and 3 January jumped 192% compared to the same period last year, but they are still 85% behind pre-pandemic levels.

Currently, the most popular return trips are to Macau, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Singapore, Bangkok, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Frankfurt. Notably, bookings to Abu Dhabi, traditionally a major gateway between China and the West, are 51% behind 2019. As for onward bookings from Abu Dhabi, 11% will go to Paris, 9% Barcelona, 5% London, 3% Munich and 3% Manchester.

67% of bookings made between 26 December and 3 January were for travel during the Chinese New Year period.

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(Source: ForwardKeys)


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