China's peak Lunar New Year air travel season fizzles as COVID cases rise

Beijing, China/ Tue, January 26, 2021 / 08:32 pm

Iphie Nie, a 30-year-old designer in Beijing who usually travels to visit family in her hometown of Shenzhen during the Lunar New Year has, like many Chinese, reluctantly decided against booking a flight for the mid-February holiday. The government has discouraged travel in what is usually the busiest period of the year to restrict the spread of COVID-19.

In the seven days before returning home, those who go anyway must present a nucleic acid test with negative results taken. As a result, airline bookings made for Lunar New Year travel as of Jan. 19 have plunged 73.7 percent compared to the holiday period in 2019, according to data provided to Reuters by travel analytics firm ForwardKeys. ForwardKeys did not provide data from 2020, saying the numbers were distorted by the early days of the COVID outbreak.

Bookings had been down 57.3 percent from 2019 as of Jan. 1, with the situation deteriorating due to outbreaks leading to tighter restrictions. “Even though I’m in a low-risk area, people in my hometown would get a bit nervous when they hear that I just got back from Beijing. It’s just too much trouble,” Nie said.

For 11 consecutive days, Beijing has reported new COVID-19 cases and nationwide case numbers are at 10-month highs, while tiny by the standards of most Western countries. Many staff working for state-owned businesses or government agencies were told not to travel without approval from management, state media reported. Some individuals who have already bought air tickets are considering the cancellation process.

“I’ve booked a ticket already, but I still haven’t made up my mind,” said Henan’s Kathy Qi, a 29-year-old Beijing office worker. As a consequence of the COVID test requirement and home quarantine rules, a report by aviation data provider Variflight forecasts a reduction of 6 million trips over the Lunar New Year, with about 50 percent of travelers likely to cancel. Ticket prices have plunged, usually at their peak during Lunar New Year. As of Jan. 25, during the holiday, flight tickets sold on Qunar.com, an online travel platform based in Beijing, averaged 651.36 yuan (US$100), the lowest level in five years, the company said on Monday.

In China, by the end of last year, when there were almost no cases, domestic airline capacity had recovered to 2019 levels, although ticket prices remained low. Luya You, BOCOM International’s transportation analyst, said a full recovery of Chinese airline revenue to pre-crisis levels would be delayed until the second or third quarter of this year, compared to her previous January or February assessment.

ForwardKeys said travelers booked tickets later than usual, with 61 percent of Chinese doing so in March to December 2020 within four days of departure, up from 52 percent in 2019. This is the only statistic that gives some hope of traveling this Chinese New Year, as a last-minute booking rush is a clear possibility if the recent outbreak is soon brought under control,” said David Tarsh, spokesman for ForwardKeys.”

Nie, the designer, however, said she was too worried about the possibility of increased restrictions to book a last-minute ticket home. What if, when I get back, I need to be isolated at home for 14 days? And I’ve only got 10 days off for a vacation,’ she said.

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