Fearing COVID-19, Chinese tourists opt for new year close to home

By Sophie YuRyan Woo

Travellers wait at the Beijing Capital International Airport following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Beijing, China December 30, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese tourists, millions of whom have shunned overseas travel because of the COVID-19 pandemic, are limiting their journeys further to nearby cities and avoiding leaving their provinces.

Recent cases of the novel coronavirus in Beijing and northern China have rekindled public concern, already shaken by calls to avoid non-essential travel during the festive season between Jan. 1 and the start of Lunar New Year in mid-February.

Millions of domestic tourists travel in the week before and after Jan. 1 in a typical year.

Hotel bookings for the three-day New Year weekend had reached 1.8 times of bookings a year earlier as of Dec. 24, but many people were not travelling far, even though plane tickets were nearly 20% cheaper on average, Beijing-based online travel platform Qunar.com said.

"The trend is taking a train to visit cities within the reach of one hour," the company said.

The hottest train tickets are for trips between Chengdu and Chongqing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and Shanghai and Hangzhou, Qunar.com said.

Around 34 million people will travel by train between Dec. 31 and Jan. 3, or 8.5 million people per day, down 6.9% from a year earlier, a China Railway official told reporters on Wednesday.

Huang Li, a white-collar worker in Beijing, said she decided against going to Sanya, on the southern island of Hainan, after the government told people to avoid unnecessary travel.

"I'm not sure if my son would be allowed to attend classes in his kindergarten if we leave Beijing," said Huang, 40. "Too many uncertainties. We might be asked to do nucleic acid tests."

Nucleic acid tests are regarded as the gold standard in detecting the novel coronavirus.

The Chinese capital has cancelled large-scale events, including the 2021 Beijing Book Fair, and ordered travel agencies not to sell packages for the city during the New Year and Lunar New Year holidays.

Many other cities have followed suit.

Shenzhen and Dalian have told residents not to leave "unless necessary", while businesses have been ordered not to organise gatherings.

In central Hubei province, where the pandemic began, locals were told to stay indoors and cap family gatherings at 10 people.

Zhou Weihong, deputy general manager at Spring Tour, the travel arm of Shanghai-based Spring Group, said her agency had developed offerings aimed at local tourism.

"Around Shanghai, there are many splendid things people can do, and there are great hotels and hot springs," Zhou said.

But not all travellers are cancelling longer trips.

Beijing resident Cai Dong, 34, and his wife are flying to Sanya this week.

"It isn't worth ruining my planned holiday just because of a handful of cases?" Cai said.

(Reporting by Sophie Yu and Ryan Woo. Editing by Gerry Doyle and Barbara Lewis)

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