As travel resumes, China’s tour groups bring hope to global tourism industry

China resumed outbound group tours to 20 countries on Monday – another positive sign for travel agencies and companies who are gearing up for the recovery of the tourism industry.

After three years of suspension due to the pandemic, outbound tour groups from major cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou started departing early Monday morning.

At Beijing’s Terminal 3, a tour group of China Tourism Group left for Singapore at 9 o’clock, making it the first group tour between Beijing and Singapore since China resumed international travels. 

On the same day, the travel company also organized outbound tour groups from other cities to Thailand, Cambodia and other popular overseas destinations for Chinese tourists.

A total of 14 flights carrying Chinese tourist groups arrived in Thailand on Monday, bringing about 600 Chinese tourists.

As a gesture of hospitality, Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), welcomed Chinese tourists at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok on Monday.

He told China Media Group (CMG) that tourism accounts for about 18 percent of Thailand’s GDP and the return of Chinese tourists will be a major step to help Thailand’s economy.

The early birds

Many Chinese kicked off their overseas travel plans during the Chinese New Year holiday, which was the first long holiday after China optimized its COVID-19 measures.

During the week-long holiday, the volume of outbound travel orders increased 640 percent year-on-year, according to online travel agency The number of orders for overseas hotels and international flights booked by Chinese tourists in the mainland increased by more than four times from last year.

After China lifted cross-border restrictions earlier last month, Han Hongmei’s family immediately set off for a two-week vacation in Dubai.

Han decided to travel abroad after she and her son recovered from the COVID-19 infection at the end of last December. Han’s husband is working in Dubai and she thought it was a good opportunity for her 5-year-old son to experience different cultures in the world.  

Chinese tourists are granted landing visa for 30 days at the port of entry in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“My son was super excited when we were climbing the Burj Khalifa Tower,” said Han. “We didn’t set a clear limit on how much we could spend for this vacation. The ultimate goal was to have fun together, eating, drinking and touring.”

Han Hongmei and her family at the top of Burj Khalifa Tower, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, January 22, 2023. /Courtesy of Han Hongmei

Chinese tourists were known for their lavish spending habits in the world’s tourism market before the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of outbound travels and the amount of expenditure were ranked first in the world in 2019, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

About 155 million outbound trips were made by Chinese tourists in 2019, NBS said. Chinese tourists spent $255 billion overseas that year, accounting for almost one-fifth of global tourism spending, according to UN’s World Tourism Organization.

Bouncing back

Guo Ruigang, a sales consultant with China International Travel Service Shenzhen, also noticed that outbound travel is picking up.

The 36-year-old has been working in the tourism industry for 12 years, focusing on outbound tours. He said the COVID-19 has dealt an unprecedented blow to the business in the past three years.

To protect people’s lives and health, China suspended all group tours in January 2020 and individual travel abroad was limited to business or education purposes.

“In order to reduce losses, our company has made every effort to develop domestic tourism, but it’s really tough,” said Guo.

Guo hopes that the tourism industry can return to pre-pandemic levels soon, as the country resumes more outbound travels.

Compared to 2019, the contribution of outbound tourism in travel agencies’ revenue dropped from over 30 percent in 2019 to less than 0.5 percent in 2021, according to the latest report on China’s outbound tourism development released by China Tourism Academy last December.

The report estimates that over 400 million Chinese tourists could’ve traveled abroad, spending between $340 billion and $430 billion, from 2020 to 2022.

Staff dressed in Thai costumes present souvenirs to the first group of tourists to Thailand in Nanning, capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China, February 6, 2023. /CFP

Tang Xiaoyun, vice president of China Tourism Academy, said that it takes time for the outbound group tour market to recover.

“At present, air ticket prices are relatively high. Due to disruptions of supply chains, prices of accommodation and catering are also at a high level, so there is still a long way to go for tourists to regain their confidence in traveling abroad,” Tang told CMG.

Many staff left the tourism industry in the past three years due to plummeted income. In Guo’s company, the outbound tour business totally stopped during this period. Both travel agencies and companies in China and abroad need to attract them back into the industry or train new staff.

Tang also pointed out travel agencies need to prepare new travel products when more international flights are available and destination countries need to restore their local services by rebuilding supply chains.

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