Covid Forces China’s Tourists to Spend ‘Golden Week’ Closer to Home

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 percent from the same period last year. In Wuhan, 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. Though impressive, that is still only about 70 percent 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 percent. And even as the 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.”

Moran Li and her family have not left their home city of Hangzhou, in eastern China, this year. So as Golden Week neared, Ms. 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.

Ms. 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, Ms. 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.

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 in order to take their children out of the city. Mr. 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 on 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 day before.

“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, Mr. 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.

Coral Yang contributed research.

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