'Golden Week' revives hopes of tourism boom

It's the annual holiday season in China and South Korea, where people traditionally travel across the country for family gatherings. But things are different this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Straits Times correspondents report.

Tourist attractions like China's Chongsheng Temple (above) in Yunnan have a cap on visitor numbers. But holiday habits have also been changed by Covid-19: Travellers prefer to travel in smaller groups, for example. ST PHOTO: ELIZABETH LAW
Tourist attractions like China's Chongsheng Temple (above) in Yunnan have a cap on visitor numbers. But holiday habits have also been changed by Covid-19: Travellers prefer to travel in smaller groups, for example. ST PHOTO: ELIZABETH LAW

Self-confessed "travelholic" Minnie Liu is going on vacation, her first for the year, during the "Golden Week" holidays next month.

The 28-year-old finance executive, who went on eight trips last year, wanted to do better than that this year but her plans were scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Now that the situation looks more stable, my friends and I are spending all the money we saved on a week-long Qinghai and Gansu holiday," she said.

She is not alone: The battered tourism sector is banking its recovery on the week-long holidays, which begin on Oct 1. The industry expects to see its first boom of the year next week, making it the most important holiday period yet.

This year's Golden Week, which always coincides with China's National Day, will include the Mid-Autumn Festival.

International travel is still impossible, but the industry hopes to match last year's record of 782 million domestic trips in the same period.

But a key group of travellers - college students - will miss the fun this year.

To make up for lost curriculum time as a result of school closures, some universities have chosen to shorten vacation time so students can catch up on their studies.

The pandemic has also fundamentally changed holiday habits: Travellers are now more conscious about health and hygiene, prefer to travel in smaller groups and are willing to spend more.

Research from the Group, which runs several reservation platforms, found that driving holidays had become extremely popular, with rental vehicles already fully booked in some locations.

"Especially popular are western regions like Yunnan and Xinjiang, as well as Hainan, because these places are more suitable for self-driving holidays," Mr Peng Liang of Group's data research centre told The Straits Times.

Domestic travellers are becoming sophisticated and are not only willing to spend more but also expecting unique experiences, he said.

"Yet, at the same time, you have to bear in mind that there are many travellers who are getting on a plane for the first time, so regular tourist sites are still popular," he said.

Nearly five months after China eased inter-provincial travel curbs, there remains pent-up demand, especially among those who had saved up for long overseas holidays.

Domestic luxury travel is trending very strongly, said general manager Sherona Shng of Four Seasons Hotel in Shenzhen.

The Four Seasons group started to see business picking up following the easing of inter-provincial travel in May and expects over 80 per cent occupancy for the rest of the year.

"However, traveller habits have changed since and in the post-Covid period we are seeing a much shorter transient booking window in which a majority of guests are booking their stays only several days in advance or even on the day itself," she added.

Similarly for the Shangri-La Group, which has half of its property portfolio located in China, the resurgence of leisure and corporate travel has seen occupancy hitting 48 per cent in July.

"Tier-2 cities such as Hangzhou, Lhasa, Diqing, Hainan and Qinhuangdao benefited from pent-up staycation demand," said a spokesman for the group, which operates the Shangri-La, Kerry and JEN brands in China.

But not all tour operators will benefit from the surge in local travellers.

Most Chinese travelling domestically tend to do their bookings online, eschewing the need for guides or travel companies, said travel agency owner Song Kai.

"Of course the industry is big and others who operate hotels, inns and local businesses will benefit," he said.

"But there's hardly any need to hire a guide because most people know their way around so agencies like ours don't get a share of the pie."

Mr Song said that his company lost about two million yuan (S$402,000) during the pandemic but has tried to continue paying his staff a minimum wage.

The agency specialises in high-end foreign travel, with trips including fine dining experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants, he said.

"We have 20,000 fans who are always interested in what we're doing next. We know that when travel reopens, they'll come right back," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2020, with the headline ''Golden Week' revives hopes of tourism boom'. Print Edition | Subscribe