China outbound travel may take another year to fully recover

This picture taken on Sept 10, 2023 shows a group of Chinese tourists walking through the entrance at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. - AFP

BEIJING (Bloomberg): The world’s tourist hotspots may need to wait another year before Chinese visitors return in any great numbers, the World Travel & Tourism Council predicts, with difficulties in getting visas and passports one key bottleneck.

Chinese cross-border travel, defined as people coming and going, could get back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2024 and then steadily grow from there, the industry body’s Chief Executive Office, Julia Simpson, said.

Another factor limiting the speed of the nation’s cross-border travel recovery is heightened fuel costs for foreign carriers not able to fly across Russian airspace, which can translate into higher fares, she said.

For people in China wanting visas, the process "has been slow and it’s because some of the embassies in China haven’t staffed back up to the levels to meet that sudden exploding demand,” Simpson said in an interview in Hong Kong on Tuesday.

On the flipside, for foreign visitors wanting to get a visa to China, "what we would say to the Chinese government is they’ve already simplified it, but keep making it simpler, simpler, simpler,” she said.

Travel in and out of China essentially ground to a halt during the global pandemic as Beijing pursued a Covid zero policy that resulted in some of the world’s strictest and longest lasting border controls. Among one of the last nations to reopen, it’s taking time for China to rebuild flight capacity from unprecedented lows.

That retarded recovery is being felt from the Philippines to Portugal. China was the world’s fastest-growing source of tourists before Covid, with about 70% of their luxury spending taking place outside of the mainland in 2019.

Despite current hurdles, the long-term outlook for China outbound travel is promising, Simpson said. Asia’s biggest economy will dethrone the US as the world’s largest travel and tourism market within the next decade, the WTTC predicts.

China aside, another area of weakness in global travel has been the business sector, with lasting shifts in work patterns impacting upon companies’ propensity to spend. That may also eventually turn around as employers realize the importance of nurturing in-person relationships.

"Zoom is fantastic for maintaining relationships, it’s great for teams that work all over the world,” Simpson said.

"But if you’re going to make a big deal and I find out my main competitor is getting on a plane to New York, I’m going to get on that plane as well.”

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