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Domestic tourism is recovering as the epidemic comes under control in China, but outbound numbers seem unlikely to rebound until next year, industry insiders say.

Beijing's Wtown resort has continued offering sanitation kits containing disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizers since it reopened in late April. The water town's visitor numbers rebounded by up to 95 percent in May.

"A lot of people have called to ask about safety," says Wang Zuoquan, an official with the attraction.

Although the recent COVID-19 flare-up in the capital has put a damper on travel enthusiasm, Wang believes things will return to normal soon, as Beijing brings the outbreak under control.

"We'll continue to offer sanitation services and packages in the long run, even when the domestic (epidemic) situation is completely over," Wang says.

Such safety measures as hygiene and social distancing are expected to be standard practices in the tourism industry until a vaccine is available, says a report on trends that will shape post-epidemic domestic travel by Mailman X, a Shanghai-based China travel-and-lifestyle marketing agency.

These rules, along with general controls like ensuring traveler numbers don't exceed 30 percent of the maximum capacity, reduce the risk of new outbreaks, the report says.

Chinese tourists increasingly place a premium on hygiene.

"I continue to wear my mask, even though restrictions have lifted, because I want to feel hygienic and protected wherever I go," says Pan Siyang, a traveler from Zhejiang province.

"I want this to be the case in other countries, too."

A big data report by Baidu and People.cn reveals that, from Jan 20 to 30, over 1 billion people searched for information about COVID-19, including best practices to maintain clean environments.

"As more Chinese people begin to fly again, there will be a stronger focus on the risks of travel and understanding the status of COVID-19 in the destination," Mailman X business director Michael Lin says.

China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention offers a searchable COVID-19 risk assessment coupled with a QR-code system created by Ant Financial, which classifies individuals' status using red, yellow and green color codes.

These measures will reassure Chinese travelers of safety and sanitation when they venture back into public spaces and mitigate risks at venues, the report says.

Shanghai Disneyland reopened in May, with visitor numbers capped at 30 percent. Guests are required to wear facemasks at all times, and only those with a green QR status can enter.

The domestic tourism market continued to recover over the recent Dragon Boat Festival holiday.

The country recorded over 48.8 million tourist visits over the threeday holiday, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism reports. Tourism revenue reached 12.3 billion yuan ($1.7 billion).

Bookings for attractions in China increased by 176 percent at the beginning of May compared with the Tomb-Sweeping Day holiday in early April.

"People are clearly itching to get out and about, making the importance of these controls crucial to public and individual safety," Lin says.

As China's economy emerges from virus-containment measures, the rebound in leisure travel has so far been conservative, with most people choosing to stay close to home.

Independent travel in open spaces is favored since it allows for social distancing, the Mailman X report says.

Crowded transportation options are less popular with 41 percent of travelers, who opt to drive themselves. Nearly 30 percent prefer high-speed trains, according to the report.

A McKinsey survey of 1,600 travelers in eight Chinese cities found 56 percent are planning trips between September and October, around the weeklong National Day holiday that starts on Oct 1.

And 54 percent are waiting on announcements from experts or the reopening of schools. About half are opting for domestic travel only.

Between 85 and 90 percent of respondents feel that travel was "not safe at all" in early April.

But this attitude is changing. Car rentals increased by 10 percent during the May Day holiday of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. Shanghai, Hainan and Chengdu were the most popular destinations, the Mailman X report says.

"This shows that, as restrictions are lifted and we see a rise in public confidence, the numbers grow immensely," Lin says.

While China is showing positive signs of recovery, domestic travelers have reduced spending on nonessential purchases like luxury items.

A report on COVID-19's impact on luxury sales from consulting firm Boston Consulting Group says luxury brands should expect a sales decline of $85 billion to $120 billion in 2020.

"This will come as no surprise, since 51 percent of the surveyed Chinese participants say they'd work harder to earn more, but only 8 percent are willing to shop more," Lin says.

The BCG's best-case scenario estimates that sales will still be down by at least 10 percent by December compared with 2019.

While Chinese believe there'll be a steady increase in household incomes, savings and spending as restrictions ease, current purchases for such categories as apparel are 40 to 50 percent lower than the pre-COVID figures, Lin says.

Cities across the country, most notably Wuhan, Hubei province-the city hit hardest by the outbreak-are distributing coupons to boost retail spending. Shanghai issued 20 billion yuan worth of coupons during the May Day holiday.

Other trends the Mailman X report mentions are decreased outbound travel interest due to rising xenophobia and increased desire for domestic travel. Stories of Chinese people involved in racial incidents have gone viral, causing fear.

"This is affecting tourism because people refrain from traveling to countries in which these undesirable incidents have taken place," Lin says.

China has been the largest source of outbound travel for years and spent $277.3 billion on overseas trips in 2018. Concerns about xenophobia will have serious negative effects on such popular destinations as the United Kingdom and the United States, Lin says.

Trip.com reports that younger people have been the main travel force, with people born after 1990 accounting for over half of bookings.

Chinese will largely be restricted to domestic travel for the rest of 2020, which means that the opening of international borders in 2021 will see a boom in people hungry for overseas travel, the Mailman X report says.

Lin predicts that 2021 could see some of the biggest tourist numbers on record.

"China has entered the recovery stage and is putting an end to months of lockdown," Lin says.

"Business as usual" has resumed for many, as the country looks to reignite its economy, and the travel industry in particular.

"Consumer attitudes have changed during COVID-19," Lin says.

"Travel companies and operators will need to adjust to the new normal."

China Daily


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