China is now removing travel restrictions rapidly, both domestically and internationally.
While the sudden opening may lead to uncertainty and hesitancy to travel in the short term, Chinese tourists still express a strong desire to travel. And the recent removal of quarantine requirements in January 2023 could usher in a renewed demand for trips abroad.
Domestically, there are already signs of strong travel recovery. The recent Chinese New Year holidays saw 308 million domestic trips, generating almost RMB 376 billion in tourism revenue. This upswing indicates that domestic travel volume has recovered to 90 percent of 2019 figures, and spending has bounced back to around 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
This article paints a picture of Chinese travelers and their evolving spending behaviors and preferences—and suggests measures that tourism service providers and destinations could take to prepare for their imminent return. The analyses draw on the findings of McKinsey’s latest Survey of Chinese Tourist Attitudes, and compare the results across six waves of surveys conducted between April 2020 and November 2022, along with consumer sentiment research and recent travel data.
From pandemic to endemic
By January 8, 2023, cross-city travel restrictions, border closures, and quarantine requirements on international arrivals to China had been lifted.3 This rapid removal of domestic travel restrictions, and an increase in COVID-19 infection rates, likely knocked travel confidence for cross-city and within-city trips. Right after the first easing of measures, in-city transport saw a marked drop as people stayed home—either because they were ill, or to avoid exposure. Subway traffic in ten major cities in mainland China fell and then spiked during Chinese New Year in February. Hotel room bookings also peaked at this time.
Domestic airline seat capacity experienced a minor rebound as each set of restrictions was lifted—suggesting a rise in demand as airlines scheduled more flights. Domestic capacity fluctuated, possibly due to the accelerated COVID-19 infection rate and a temporary labor shortage. International seat capacity, however, continued to climb (Exhibit 1).