Has China’s reopening lived up to the travel industry’s expectations?
The majority of corporates expect their travel volumes to have reached pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023, according to one recent survey, but a separate study earlier this year revealed contrasting views on the last international market to reopen to the world – China.
Amidst a backdrop of surveys and research pointing to regenerative investment and growth, the results of a GBTA survey presented a mixed message on the issue of travel to and from mainland China. According to the survey, conducted in January, just under a quarter (24 per cent) of US travel buyers typically allowed employees to travel to China, while, at the time, 57 per cent either did not allow it or recommended against it.
Yet when China reopened its doors to business travellers on 8 January, it sparked an immediate revival. We appear to be navigating an environment of conflicting variables that suggests both predicted increases in business travel and limitations to this growth.
The ensuing few days after the country reopened saw international arrival and departure numbers increase by 50 per cent compared with the days immediately before policies restricting travel were lifted. According to travel management company CWT, China's top inbound markets for bookings at that time included the United States, Germany and the UK. But while this indicated an initial desire to get back to business stays in the country, the number of arrivals was still 75 per cent down on the same period in 2019.
By the end of March, despite a surge in cabin crew applications and with China’s domestic flight capacity just surpassing levels from March 2019, international air seat capacity had recovered to just 30 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, seat capacity between Europe and China this May remains 56 per cent down on the same month in 2019, according to aviation analytics specialist Cirium. All this suggests that international travel is rising, but only gradually.
Looking at travel in the reverse direction, a recent BTN Europe article noted that Chinese travellers represent the highest-spending outbound market in the world.
While China’s re-emergence from its prolonged period of closure could see a welcome boom in business travel across the APAC region in particular, other regions may benefit less.