March 9, 2021

cruciforme

travel, Always a step ahead

Clamping down on going home for the holidays

6 min read

Crowded Chinese train station
Each year, millions in China make long journeys home during the Spring Festival

Today marks the start of the world’s largest human migration – an event which sees millions of people travel thousands of miles across China to reach home in time for the Lunar New Year.

For some, it is the only time they will see their families all year and is an event not to be missed.

But there are fears the Spring Festival travel season, or Chunyun in Chinese, could become a superspreader event. After all, last year’s Chunyun is believed to have played a significant role in the spread of Covid-19.

So the Chinese authorities have been left with a problem: how do you encourage people to stay local, without actually cancelling the country’s biggest annual celebration?

The stick

This year’s Chunyun begins on 28 January and will last until 8 March, giving people time to travel potentially thousands of miles across China in time for New Year, on 12 February, and back again.

In a normal year, China sees around three billion trips during the Chunyun period.

But last year, as the virus began to gain momentum and the government introduced travel restrictions, figures from the Ministry of Transport show the number of trips fell by more than half.

Graphic
Graphic

This year, with life almost back to normal across large swathes of the country, the number of trips made is expected to increase to 1.7bn, officials said.

In preparation for this, Beijing unveiled plans to vaccinate 50m people – or 3.5% of the population – before travel began in earnest.

However, China has in recent weeks seen small outbreaks of cases, especially in rural areas.

In the north-eastern city of Tonghua in Jilin province, the whole city of around two million has been put in lockdown after 13 cases were recorded earlier this month.

Graphic
Graphic

For people in the affected cities, the message is clear – there will be no travelling for the Spring Festival this year.

But even if your area is not under such a strict lockdown, it might be hard to get home.

China’s National Health Commission has stated that people returning to rural areas will need to produce a negative Covid-19 test issued up to seven days before their departure during the Spring Festival.

They’ll also have to be under a 14-day “home observation” period – which still allows them to leave their home, but requires them to monitor their temperature daily.

During this time they will also not be allowed to take part in gatherings and have to take a Covid test every seven days.

Many on social media have been quick to point out that this will disproportionately affect migrant workers who work in cities and travel back to their homes in rural areas at this time. The measures would make it either too impractical or too costly – but officials say these are the precautions which need to be taken to keep China safe.

This photo taken on January 6, 2021 shows a medical worker taking a swab sample from a woman outside a residential compound following a new outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Shijiazhuang
Those returning will have to take a Covid test once every seven days

PHD student Huang Jie – which is not his real name – had to show a nucleic acid test result, his “health code” had to be green, and a community acceptance certificate – which he had to have signed by his village’s leaders – when he arrived at the station on his way home.

But it was worth it.

“New Year’s Eve is a time of reunion,” he told the BBC. “I must celebrate it with people I love, I must have someone to spend it with.”

The carrot

But what about the majority of those that are not in lockdown, or in high risk areas? The method is quite different.

Take the city of Hangzhou, which is giving out 1,000 yuan (£113; $154) to migrant workers who chose to stay. Companies in Zhejiang, Ningbo and Quanzhou are also issuing these “red packets” for workers choosing not to go home.

Companies have also been encouraged to offer their workers subsidies, free food and to arrange short cultural tours in a bid to get them to stay in.

Then there are the cities where migrant workers who stay over the holidays are been giving extra privileges usually reserved for those born locally, which can be used towards housing and medical care.

Meanwhile, the city of Yiwu is offering free admission for cultural venues and facilities, offering children free participation in a winter camp, and letting businesses who stay open during Chinese New Year apply for subsidies.

Residents will also have their outpatient service registration fees waived at hospitals and get a 50% discount off health check-ups.

And if all that isn’t enough to entice people to stay – banners with slogans encouraging people to stay, have also been put up, like this one in Beijing which reads: “Don’t leave Beijing unless necessary. Don’t go abroad unless necessary.”

"Don't leave Beijing unless necessary. Don't go abroad unless necessary."
This banner encourages Beijingers not to leave the capital

Of course, some businesses are being more openly restrictive with their workers.

“One night last week, our company suddenly asked us to attend an online session,” Yufan Gao, not his real name, who works in a state-owned enterprise, told the BBC.

“My leader told us that… he strongly recommended us to spend the Chinese New Year in Beijing. All employees intending to leave are required to complete an application form. But he said the possibility of an approval was very low, with only 20% being allowed to leave. I felt disappointed.”

People walk in front of the entrance of Beijing Railway Station on January 19, 2020 in Beijing, China
Many state-owned companies in Beijing are discouraging workers from going home

But will it work? Perhaps, although people like Mr Liu, a delivery worker in Beijing, says nothing will deter him from going home.

“My wife and children are in my hometown and I haven’t seen them for six months. I really miss them a lot,” he told the BBC.

“Although there is a lot of trouble, you still have to go back because the whole point of working in the big city is to make a living, and if you can’t even see your family, there is no incentive to work.”

Total escape

Some of the most popular tourist destinations in the world are right on China’s doorstep.

In 2019, those from China travelled widely to numerous parts of Asia, with countries like Japan and Thailand being among some of the most popular destinations.

Graphic
Graphic

And Lunar New Year is one of the most popular times to travel. According to Ctrip, China’s biggest online travel agency, seven million Chinese tourists were expected to travel abroad during the Spring Festival in 2019.

Japan saw a staggering 723,617 visitors from China in February 2019 alone.

But when Covid-19 struck last year, these numbers saw a drastic decline. Some Chinese tourists were able to make it out of China last year before lockdowns were imposed – but this year, there will be no chance at all of that.

A graph showing visitor numbers around Lunar New Year
A graph showing visitor numbers around Lunar New Year

Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan and Malaysia – some of the most popular Asian spots – have closed their borders to holiday travellers.

And even if there is a way for them to leave, the return journey will be a difficult one. All arrivals into China will also have to go through a compulsory 14-day quarantine in a designated location and have to be tested for Covid at least four times. They will then have to carry out a further seven-day home quarantine.

But it is not just Chinese holidaymakers who are feeling the disappointment this year.

Anchalika Kijkanakorn, founder and managing director of the upscale AKARYN Hotel Group, which runs luxury resorts in Thailand said this Lunar New Year would be a “quiet one”.

“Over the last few decades, with the rise of Chinese travellers, Chinese New Year has risen as a peak period… in Thailand’s tourism calendar,” he told the BBC. “The restriction this year will be unprecedented as last year Covid hit after CNY was over. Thailand’s tourism will feel the pain.”

Additional reporting by Yitsing Wang, BBC World Service

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