Along the Great Wall, extra security guards have been deployed to deter rowdy tourists. Hotel bookings in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, have risen 600% from the same period last year. In Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak began late last year, visitor demand for the city’s Yellow Crane Tower has been so high that the landmark sits atop a major travel agency’s list of the “Country’s Hottest Scenic Spots.”
China has kicked off Golden Week, the annual spree of shopping and travel built around the Oct. 1 National Day celebrations and the first major holiday since the country brought its epidemic more or less under control.
In any year, the outlay of the weeklong holiday is a closely watched barometer of the country’s economic health. This year it may be especially so, offering the clearest measure yet of China’s recovery from the pandemic as people squeeze into train cars, crowd into ancient temples and do everything else that people in many other countries can still only dream of.
The early signs seem to confirm two trends. First: China has returned to near normalcy with remarkable speed. And second: Even so, the ripple effects of the pandemic are hard to shake off.
The week will also reflect how the pandemic has reshaped travel, turning China’s increasingly global tourists back inward. Most years, millions of Chinese go overseas during the holiday, but this year, they have little option but to stay closer to home.
China’s official tourism research institute has predicted that 550 million domestic trips will be made during the eight-day holiday, which this year coincides with the Mid-Autumn Festival. Although impressive, that is still only about 70% of the number in the same period last year, reflecting the sizable number of people being kept home by economic insecurity or lingering fear of infection.
Official restrictions, though loosened, also remain. Tickets for Beijing’s Forbidden City are sold out, but capacity is limited to 75%. And even as authorities encouraged people to get on the road, some schools said they would grant only half the week off or required students to obtain advance permission to leave campus.
Still, the tourism industry was bracing for an onslaught.
“The energy has been pent-up for too long,” said Lisa Li, a manager at a Shanghai travel agency. “So we can predict that this National Day will not be relaxing at all.”
While the rest of the world still struggles to tame the virus, China has not reported any locally transmitted symptomatic cases since Aug. 15. Most foreigners are not allowed to enter the country unless they have valid residence permits, but inside, factories, shopping malls and even luxury auto shows have whirred back to life. Beijing recently stopped requiring people to wear face masks at all times; in Wuhan, a massive elbow-to-elbow pool party grabbed international attention.
The recovery has been enabled in part by the same strenuous, top-down tactics that Chinese officials used to control the virus. Authorities were already urging companies to get back to work in February and March, though the virus was still spreading domestically. Factories dutifully fired back up, though few consumers were buying.
Gradually, though, people’s confidence revived, and officials turned their attention toward restarting the retail and tourism sectors. Over the summer, several airlines advertised passes that would grant passengers unlimited flights within a fixed time period. Tourist attractions, especially in Wuhan, offered free admission.
The central government declared the period from Sept. 9 to Oct. 8 “National Consumer Promotion Month,” with the slogan, “Enjoy consumption for a beautiful life.”
As the holiday begins, those efforts seem to be paying off. While many lower-income people, especially migrant workers, are still struggling to find work, the middle class and affluent Chinese who drive the country’s economy are eager to let loose.
Last year, more than 7 million people left the country during Golden Week, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. This year, demand for hotels in remote locations like Lhasa has soared, reflecting a desire to still find “faraway places,” according to a report by Ctrip, an online travel agency.
Moran Li and her family have not left their home city of Hangzhou, in eastern China, this year. So as Golden Week neared, Li, who works in the hotel industry, had hoped to finally make an outing. She set her sights on Sanya, a palm-tree-laden city in China’s tropical island province of Hainan.
But every hotel she checked was sold out for the holiday as well as the two weekends after. She eventually booked a room for the weekend of Oct. 30. This week, she, her husband and her 22-month-old son plan to visit her husband’s hometown not far from Hangzhou instead.
Li said she did worry about her son catching the coronavirus but that the situation within China felt manageable. “In the end, we have to take him out eventually,” she said.
Others like Liu Zihan, 23, didn’t wait for Golden Week to set out. After graduating from college this year, Liu spent two months crisscrossing the country, taking advantage of the unlimited flights package.
She visited 17 cities, flitting from the industrial metropolis of Shenzhen in the southeast to the walled old town of Dali in the southwest, from humid Hangzhou to the arid Tibetan plateau. She recently finished her trip in Hainan, where she took advantage of duty-free policies to load up on Kiehl’s face masks and Armani lip gloss.
For the holiday, though, she planned to visit her boyfriend in the eastern city of Changzhou and stay put for the week. “There are too many people on National Day to go anywhere,” she said.
Still, the frenzy to get out belies some less rosy realities. Although the number of domestic flight passengers during Golden Week is expected to increase 10% from the same period last year, the average price of tickets on many routes was lower than in previous years, according to Chinese news reports citing Qunar, an online travel company.
While five hotels in the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Macao were sold out for Golden Week in the beginning of September, a week later only three still were, reflecting a high volume of cancellations, according to a survey by Morgan Stanley analysts. The drop may have reflected overly optimistic projections by tour groups, the analysts said.
Li, the Shanghai travel agency employee, said that even when tour groups do go out, many are made up of older travelers, who tend to spend less money and often qualify for reduced admission prices.
Full recovery for the travel industry is still far off, she said. “Every company is desperately trying to think of how to survive, not about how to make money.”
Compounding difficulties has been many schools’ reluctance to let their students travel. Nearly 200 million Chinese students have returned to in-person learning.
Gon Hong, a Hangzhou resident, had planned to take his 10-year-old son to either Guangzhou or Chengdu for the holiday, especially because he had a coupon for a Chengdu hotel that would have included cheaper room rates and in-room dining.
But word soon circulated in a chat group for parents at his son’s school that they would need to seek permission from the school to take their children out of the city. Hong decided to take his son roller-skating closer to home instead.
Universities also introduced measures to limit students’ movement, sometimes at the last minute. China West Normal University, in Sichuan province, announced Monday that the eight-day holiday would be reduced to five nonconsecutive days for public health reasons. The first of those days, the announcement said, was Sept. 27 — the previous day.
“I don’t know if I’ve been time traveling or lost my memory — how did I not know on the 27th that I was already on vacation?” one student wrote in response on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform.
Still, China’s experience suggests that consumption can bounce back fairly quickly once the virus is under control, said Zhang Tianbing, who leads the Asia-Pacific consumer products and retail team at Deloitte, the global consulting firm. “That probably gives you a bit of hope and optimism for other countries,” he said.
For his part, Zhang, who lives in Shanghai, said he had no plans to travel during the holiday. He had spent much of the year stuck in Britain because of the pandemic and returned to China only recently.
He planned to spend the next few days, he said, trying to revive his garden.