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.

How will the coronavirus impact the UK inbound tourism market?

This article appeared on the UK travel website, Travelmole, on 27th January 2019: By Helena Beard

Whilst we may have been treated to good luck greetings, lion dancing shows and beautiful Chinese New Year decorations over this weekend, for our colleagues in China, things have been very different. 

Our Chinese staff closed the Beijing office last Thursday, dispersing throughout Asia to welcome the Year of the Rat with their families. At the same time, millions of people did the same, travelling both domestically and internationally to take advantage of the national holiday running from 24-30 January. Within a matter of hours, the severity of the Coronavirus started to become clear and the city of Wuhan was on lockdown. On Friday, the Chinese authorities announced that all group tours or ‘flight plus accommodation’ packages departing after Monday 27th January should be cancelled by travel agents free of charge. Anyone wishing to cancel their flight may also do so without penalty. No more group tours will be booked until the advice changes.

So how concerned should we be as an industry? Our clients are UK and European hotels, attractions, destinations and travel brands. They depend upon their visitors from China, now the biggest and most valuable source travel market in the world. What impact will this have and what should we be doing in response?

The most obvious place to look for clues about the future is to return to the past, and to SARS, another coronavirus. The SARS virus also originated in China and the outbreak lasted around six months from late 2002 to mid 2003. It resulted in 8,000 cases and 774 people died. There have since been other similar coronaviruses, such as MERS-CoV, which developed in Saudi Arabia in 2012. 

SARS had a big effect on outbound tourism from China (and more markedly on inbound tourism to Asia), but there are some very important differences 18 years later.

China has learnt from SARS

The response to the outbreak of the current 2019 – nCoV virus has been incredibly swift and efficient compared to the response to SARS. Back in 2003, a full three months passed after the first case before the SARS virus was reported to the WHO. This new virus was reported to WHO just three weeks after the first reported case. Beijing is being a lot more open about the situation and sharing information globally in an effort to curtail the spread.

The city of Wuhan was swiftly put on lockdown, followed by another 12 cities, researchers have already published their analysis of the virus, and diagnostic tools are in place for testing at all China’s airports. They are also being used at airports around the world. There is a dedicated 1,000 bed hospital being built in Hubei province which, it is said, will be completed within just six days.

This is China

Probably the most comforting aspect about this virus is that it has originated in China. The authoritarian nature of China means that, when Beijing decides something needs to happen, it will happen, quickly, without bureaucracy and with compliance. China’s technology leads the world, and the country’s unparalleled technical and human resources can deliver a speedy and efficient response to a crisis like no other. An instruction from the government will be followed without question. The national holiday has already been extended to 2ndFebruary and schools will remain closed. People will work from home. Life, and business, will go on.

Prepare for a surge in demand

In 2002, 16.6 million Chinese travelled internationally. In 2003, the year of SARS, this figure increased to 20.2m. In 2004, the year after SARS, the figure jumped by 8 million people to 28.9m, showing the resilience of this market. The outbound visitor numbers then continued to grow exponentially, reaching over 150 million last year. 

I have worked in travel for 25 years and can’t remember the number of reassuring conversations I have had about the ‘pent up demand’ which follows any event with a tourism impact. But there is no market which is more likely to explode with pent up demand than the Chinese market. This is a nation which believes travel is key to success. For the young, it offers vital education. For the 400 million plus millennials, it delivers status and an investment in their future. For the middle aged, it is a vital life experience, and one which was denied to them in their youth. For President Xi, arguably the biggest influencer in the world, it is a fundamental part of his strategy to establish China as a global superpower. This is why Beijing is supporting route development throughout the globe, opening up the skies and supporting new flights from China’s Tier One, Tier Two and even Tier Three cities. Connectivity is key to success. And remember, if President Xi wants it, it will happen.

On a more practical level, on the instructions of the authorities, the travel agents have cancelled all trips free of charge. Airlines are also allowing free flight changes and cancellations. That money will all be coming back into the pockets of experience-hungry Chinese tourists. They aren’t going to bank it or spend it on home improvements or a new car. They will already be planning for their first opportunity to rebook.

For those interested in the UK and Europe, the next opportunity for many will be the summer. Given the speed of response, and the experience of history, we can predict that, hopefully, this current virus will be contained well before the summer months. The Chinese do their holiday research early but they book late, within around 6-8 weeks of travel, so there is plenty of time before the summer peak.

My best advice to tourism businesses is to use this time to prepare. Find your Mandarin speaking guides, translate your orientation materials, get your WeChat Pay and AliPay implemented, work your trade networks, and prepare your press releases, sales materials and social content, because this will pass and, when it does, that pent up demand is going to hit. Big style.