Planes flying, people traveling. China is recovering, but how?

Travelers in face masks wait in the train station in Wuhan, China, earlier this month.
Travelers in face masks wait in the train station in Wuhan, China, earlier this month. Photo Credit: Robert Way/

During China's recent Mid-Autumn Festival, which fell on the first weekend of October, news footage showed thousands of people packed together at tourist sites across the country.

The nation's Ministry of Culture and Tourism expected a total of 550 million people to travel for the festival, according to the Chinese Communist Party-run tabloid Global Tourism, a figure that would amount to 70% of last year's total.

Indeed, in China, where Covid-19 originated, domestic travel is making a swift recovery.

After a grounding of most of the Chinese airline fleet in the late winter, passengers on domestic flights reached 75% of 2019 levels by the end of August, according to the Australia-based CAPA Centre for Aviation. And domestic air travel for the Mid-Autumn Festival was projected to exceed last year's numbers, CAPA data and product director Sharon Dai said ahead of the festival.

Analysts say that the key to China's travel recovery has been its success at tamping down the Covid-19 virus. The nation of 1.4 billion has rarely reported more than 30 confirmed cases in a day since the start of September, according to the World Health Organization.

And while some experts are skeptical that such numbers represent the true count, few question that transmission in the country is low, especially compared to the U.S., where daily confirmed cases are now above 50,000.

"I think people vote with their feet," said Xiang Li, director of Temple University's U.S.-Asia Center for Tourism & Hospitality Research. "If the official data is entirely not credible, then I really doubt that the Chinese people are brave or silly enough to do the sort of movement we are seeing."

Still, analysts disagree about whether there is something Americans, and especially the U.S. tourism industry, can draw from China's success that would also apply here.

"The wrong lesson is that a Wuhan-style lockdown is the way to do this," said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. He said that China originally stunted Covid-19 transmission by taking drastic measures, even including nailing people into their homes and separating children from their families.

Later, after transmission levels were dramatically reduced, Dai said, both the Chinese state and Chinese airlines took a number of proactive measures to increase air travel and tourism.

The state, for example, has eased crowd restrictions, including recently lifting the upper limit on visitor attractions from 50% to 75%. Airlines, for their part, have aggressively discounted to stimulate demand.

Continued limitations on the ability of Chinese residents to travel abroad is also serving to redirect pent-up travel demand to the domestic market, Dai said.

Li said that both the public and private sectors in China have also been innovative in efforts to spur travel.
For example, many Chinese destinations doled out vouchers for residents to use on expenses such as travel and shopping.

"It's just a different approach to a stimulus package," he said.

And Li credited Chinese travel companies for their smart deployment of technology. For example,, the country's largest OTA, was able to re-energize sales through highly successful livestreaming broadcasts that promoted domestic tourism products.

Still, as Chinese airlines brought domestic capacity back to 90% of 2019 levels in August, load factors were a middling 75.3%, according to IATA, down 12.3 percentage points year over year.

Judson Rollins, founder of the New Zealand-based consultancy Propel Aviation Solutions, said that figure, coupled with discounting, suggests that Chinese carriers are flying what he called "uneconomic capacity," likely under direction from the government.

"What you're seeing is airlines being told to fly," Rollins said.

A China Southern Airlines jet. China's domestic capacity is back to 90% of pre-Covid levels.
A China Southern Airlines jet. China's domestic capacity is back to 90% of pre-Covid levels.

China's three largest carriers -- China Southern, Air China and China Eastern -- are majority-owned by the federal government, he noted. And several smaller carriers are co-owned and financially backed by provincial governments. As such, losses can be backstopped by taxpayers.

"They want to keep up the appearance of a healthy economy," Rollins said.

Johns Hopkins' Adalja said that it is Taiwan, and not China, that the U.S. and the U.S. travel industry should look to for lessons on how to enable healthy domestic tourism during the pandemic.

Taiwan's 24 million people are now moving about freely, without social distancing. Capacity limitations ended in early June.

Meanwhile, the country has recorded a total of just 523 Covid-19 cases and seven deaths, according to the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control.

Adalja said Taiwan's success in handling Covid-19 has been due to proactive action and the robust public health system it has been building ever since the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Taiwan began taking action last December, Adalja said, as soon as it became aware of reports coming out of Wuhan and before mainland China acknowledged the gravity of the problem.

The country implemented robust testing, contact tracing and isolating and also began screening travelers arriving from Wuhan.

Being proactive, rather than reactive like most of the world, has enabled Taiwan to prevent Covid-19 from taking hold, Adalja said. 


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