June 18, 2024

Since China reopened its borders in 2023 after three years of Covid isolation, domestic travel has thrived and high-speed rail has grown increasingly popular. But international trips in and out of the country are lagging, and flight capacity is still just a third of prepandemic levels.

The economic stakes are high. Before the pandemic, Chinese travelers were the world’s biggest spenders, accounting for 20 percent of global tourism spending, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

In the past year, the Chinese authorities have tried to spur more inbound travel. Among the changes: China has waived travel visas or agreed to extend the length of visa-free travel for visitors from eight countries, including Germany and France.

The main factor holding back international travel by Chinese will continue to be China’s economy. Growth has bounced back from the pandemic, but the weight of a severe real estate downturn has dampened consumer spending and confidence inside China. And global geopolitical tensions remain a wild card. China is engaged in trade disputes with the United States and Europe, home to many major multinational companies. As they think twice about their business in China, travel suffers.

Here’s what to know about the state of China’s travel economy.

Throughout the pandemic, China enforced some of the strictest travel rules in the world. Overseas travelers who managed to enter the country sometimes had to quarantine at their own expense for as long as two months.

As of December, international flight capacity — essentially the number of available seats on flights coming from and going to China — was only 62 percent of what it was in December 2019, according to OAG, a flight data analytics firm. But domestic travel has picked up: Over the 3-day weekend at the end of last month, the number of those fliers exceeded prepandemic levels by nearly 10 percent.

At the start of last year, there were only about 500 international flights every week in China, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the aviation regulator. Now there are about 4,600, and that number is expected to increase to 6,000 by the end of the year — about 80 percent of prepandemic levels.

A big test will come next month during the spring festival around the Lunar New Year, typically a heavy travel period when millions of workers travel to their hometowns. Chinese airlines will schedule 2,500 additional international flights to accommodate spring festival visits, China’s aviation regulator said last week.

China’s transport officials said they expected 480 million rail trips to be made during a 40-day travel surge around the spring festival in the weeks before and after the Lunar New Year, a nearly 40 percent increase from last year.

High-speed rail has become a more popular way to travel within the country. China State Railway Group, the national rail operator, said rail trips exceeded 20 million at the start of the Golden Week holiday in October, a high, and the average daily number of passenger trips throughout the year exceeded 10 million.

Most analysts said they believed that the full recovery of international travel wouldn’t happen until 2025.

In a January research note, economists at Nomura, a Japanese bank, said the pace of the sector’s recovery would largely be determined by how much Chinese travelers were willing to spend. Pandemic-era problems like delays in issuing visas and passports that lasted through 2023 have been addressed.

“While supply-side constraints eased, the demand-side drag is now starting to kick in, and sizable headwinds remain for China’s outbound tourism recovery in 2024 and possibly 2025,” the Nomura economists wrote.

In December, China started allowing visitors from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Malaysia and the Netherlands to travel for 15 days without visas, a change it said would last through November 2024. China’s National Immigration Administration said 147,000 visas had been granted in the first six and a half weeks of the program. China also reached agreements to make visa-free travel more accessible for tourists from Thailand and Singapore.

For Americans, visa applicants will no longer need to submit documents such as hotel booking records, an itinerary or an invitation letter. The authorities have also cut all visa application fees by 25 percent until the end of the year.

It has also gotten easier for foreigners to pay for things when visiting China. Last July, the main payment platforms, WeChat Pay and AliPay, said they would support foreign credit cards and allow visitors to pay like locals. China has moved away from paper money and coins, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic.

Flights between China and the United States have been only slowly restored. Before the pandemic, there were more than 300 flights every week between the two countries. That number was 36 a week in September and has gradually increased. In November, the countries agreed to increase flights to 70 a week.

The fraught Chinese-U.S. relationship will continue to lurk in the background of international travel to China.

The U.S. State Department maintains a “Level 3” travel alert on China, warning Americans to “reconsider travel” to the country because of “the risk of wrongful detentions,” among other reasons.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has its own travel notice, warning that travelers to the United States have been “harassed and interrogated” at the border with “various excuses,” and that Chinese citizens have been arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted.

The changing tastes and expendable income of Chinese travelers could shape how the travel economy’s recovery plays out.

“As Chinese households become more price-sensitive and rational, domestic tourism is more preferred, given that it usually takes less time and money,” said Ying Zhang of the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research business.