Chinese are rushing to book international trips as Beijing lifts restrictions on re-entering the country from abroad.
Minutes after authorities this week announced they would end quarantine and testing requirements for inbound passengers, the country’s top travel sites were flooded with searches and bookings for overseas flights.
The scramble for the exits comes as China earlier this month lifted domestic COVID restrictions, causing a massive wave of infections across the country, which had been nearly virus-free for much of the pandemic due to rigid control measures.
Searches on major online travel platform Qunar reportedly leapt by nearly 700% on Monday in the minutes after the loosening of return requirements. Bookings on the main platform run by Trip.com TCOM, +4.32%, which owns Qunar, reportedly jumped more than 300% on Tuesday from the day before.
On Fliggy, the travel platform of Alibaba Group Holding BABA, +4.92%, overseas flight searches have jumped more than 800% this week, with a three-year high for inbound search inquiries, Chinese media outlet Guancha reported.
Most travelers seem bound for foreign locations within the region. Top destinations include Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, according to Trip.com data.
Beijing-based animator Li Yuanyuan said she bought a round-trip ticket to Thailand’s beach getaway Phuket for mid-January.
Li, who said she traveled abroad at least once a year before the pandemic — and before China’s draconian border restrictions — said: “I haven’t left the country in three years. This trip is partly a vacation, but also to escape the COVID chaos.”
On Tuesday, the Chinese government said it would begin taking applications for new tourism passports on Jan. 8. The country had halted passport issuance in early 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to stop people leaving, as well as entering the country and spreading the virus.
China is experiencing the world’s largest explosion of COVID infections, at an estimated million-plus per day, according to minutes released from a meeting last week of China’s National Health Commission.
As China had been sealed off from the world for nearly the entire duration of the pandemic, the country had little natural immunity up until the beginning of this month, when officials suddenly dropped domestic restrictions such as central isolation for patients, daily testing and the need to show a digital “green pass” to enter most public facilities.
Authorities on Monday said that beginning Jan. 8, foreign arrivals will no longer be subject to quarantine, and airlines that bring in passengers who test positive will not be penalized — a measure that had riled airline companies for the past year.
Inbound travelers will also no longer need a health-code permit from Chinese embassies abroad, nor will they be required to get a PCR test upon arrival. However, passengers will still need to show proof of a negative nucleic-acid test within 48 hours before flight departures.
Chinese New Year — often dubbed the world’s largest period of domestic migration — begins Jan. 21 and lasts into February. Traditionally, workers and students flock to their hometowns for the duration of the break, feasting with extended family and giving gifts of fruit, liquor and cash-stuffed red envelopes.
But several Chinese workers told MarketWatch they will forgo returning home next month and instead use their time off to travel abroad.
“I’ve spent the last three [Chinese] New Years in my hometown with my parents and grandparents,” said Yang Yi, a 27-year-old masseuse from the western metropolis of Chengdu. “This year I’m finally going to see friends in Seoul.”
Inbound and outbound ticket prices remained exorbitant for much of the pandemic, as few international flights were operating in China. But prices will normalize in the coming months, with China departures and arrivals peaking next summer, Qunar’s data research chief, Lan Xiang, told Chinese media this week.
However, with China’s explosion of infections, and its years-long restrictions on inbound foreigners, other countries appear to be putting up hurdles for prospective Chinese travelers.
Following Monday’s announcement, Japan, India, Italy and South Korea all said they would be imposing tighter COVID-testing requirements on tourists from China.