Restarting tourism in Europe; what can we learn from China?

China is finally starting to emerge from lockdown and take its first steps to restart travel and tourism throughout the country. Can Europe learn anything from China’s experience as we look ahead to a time when we too can think about reopening our museums, lifting travel restrictions, and welcoming visitors once more to our national parks?

Wuhan is where the story began, and 80 days after lockdown started, the city is now finally beginning to lift some restrictions, and open borders. The metro is running again and retail businesses and shopping centres are being reopened in a staged approach from this week, to try to reinvigorate some spending among residents. However, as far as travel goes, there are strict regulations still in place. Visitors to Wuhan are required to report how they have travelled and their reasons for coming. Hotel guests are having their temperatures checked twice a day for signs of the virus. They are required to show a code on a smartphone app which tracks their health status and where they have travelled. If you want to board a bus, you also have to show your smartphone health code to a volunteer. Tracking via technology is a vital part of the city’s strategy in coming out of lockdown.

Wuhan Tianhe International Airport has also reopened following a 76-day closure. According to the aviation data platform, Variflight, Chengdu, Guangdong and Hainan are the most popular destinations for flights now departing from Wuhan. It’s all about the domestic market and will be for some time.

Attractions reopening

According to the government, Hubei province, including Wuhan, has opened more than 40 natural outdoor attractions to the public since the beginning of April. To try to control spread of COVID-19, all attractions have adopted e-ticketing with tickets available via WeChat as well as Online Travel Agents. Tourist flows are controlled through time slots, with daily flow limits in place. Tourists are required to socially distance to 2 metres and to wear a mask during their visit. Tourist attractions which focus on indoor visits remain closed for now.

National holiday boosts domestic tourism

The Qingming Festival is a three day holiday which took place over the first weekend of April. It is an important festival in the Chinese calendar, when people pay tribute to the deceased and visit the graves of their ancestors. It is a popular weekend for domestic travel and getting together with friends and family. During this year’s festival, more parks and scenic attractions reopened across the country amid tight restrictions. Visitor limits were set (and quickly reached, leading to the closure of some attractions). Temperature checks were made on every visitor and health codes shown.

Some early data is now emerging in China on domestic tourism statistics. Qunar and Trip.com are reporting signs of recovery in the domestic market and an increase in booking volumes for transportation tickets, hotels and scenic attractions. According to the ‘2020 Qingming bank holiday market recovery report’ issued by Fliggy, bookings for train tickets and scenic spots during the Qingming holiday were up 100% during the week. Hotel bookings are also starting to show recovery as are city tours and high speed trains. Liang Jianzhang, co-founder and chairman of Trip.com Group has been expressing cautious positivity, saying

“I am optimistic about the recovery of domestic tourism. People have accumulated a strong desire to consume”

According to the China Tourism Academy, during the Qingming Festival there were 43,254 domestic trips, and ticket sales on attractions on Trip.com increased by 114% vs the previous month. These are not large figures, but they are a start. Unsurprisingly, short tours, and self drive were the most popular methods of travel.

What can we learn from China?

At this point, it is important to watch and learn. As attractions open up, it is inevitable that we will see mistakes being made and successes being delivered. It was widely reported that, as soon as Huangshan National Park in Anhui Province opened its gates over the Qingming Festival weekend, it was inundated with visitors and forced to close as social distancing rules could not be adhered to. The attraction had offered free entry in order to stimulate demand. On reflection, probably an unnecessary and potentially damaging decision. 

Shanghai Disneyland is now expected to reopen on 15th April moving the date forward from June. This follows a phased reopening of certain areas which has been going on for a number of weeks, which started with resort hotels, shopping and dining areas with reduced opening hours and a limited capacity. This phased approach may be adopted by many major attractions around the world and theme park executives will be watching closely to see how things progress in Shanghai.

There is clearly a pent up demand in China for travel, tourism and entertainment. But caution and concern over health and safety will continue for some time. In Beijing, indoor attractions remain closed, but restaurants and shopping malls are open again. But that has not marked a return to normality. The restaurants are quiet, with people reluctant to sit near each other or to socialize as they would have done before coronavirus. Tourist attractions throughout the world can learn from China. They must be bold, and willing to face up to what might be an unwelcome reality of consumer behaviour for the next year. However much we might want to enjoy domestic and international travel once again, we will require reassurances, hygiene policies, effective visitor management and reliable health screening checks, in order to return to attractions with confidence.

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