Asia’s tourist hotspots brace for boom as China eases virus rules

Travelers walk with their luggage at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, China, Dec 27, 2022. (TINGSHU WANG / REUTERS)

BANGKOK/SINGAPORE/SYDNEY – Asian countries are bracing for an influx of Chinese tourists as COVID restrictions are dismantled and, while some are wary, operators in others are preparing packages such as hotpot buffets to cash in on the expected spike in travel.

Chinese tourists will no longer need to quarantine on return home starting Jan 8, the government announced this week, a move that spurred a surge in bookings from what was the world's largest outbound travel market in 2019.

The once $255 billion a year in global spending by Chinese tourists ground to a virtual halt during the pandemic, leaving a gaping hole in the Asian market, where countries from Thailand to Japan had depended on China as the largest source of foreign visitors.

READ MORE: China's outbound tourism expects revival as curbs ease

International flights to and from China are at just 8 percent of pre-pandemic levels, VariFlight data shows, but carriers are looking to ramp up capacity as authorities ease COVID-driven limits on the number of flights.

The prospect of cash-rich Chinese flocking to shopping streets across the world boosted luxury stocks this week, as China accounts for 21 percent of the world's $371.91 billion luxury goods market

"There is little doubt mainland Chinese are the spark plug for Thailand's tourism recovery," said Bill Barnett, managing director of hospitality consultancy C9 Hotelworks. "It's not a question of if it will happen, it's now just a matter of how many and how fast."

Malaysia Airlines and Vietnamese budget carrier VietJet Aviation said they hope to restore China flights to pre-pandemic levels by June 2023, while others such as Singapore Airlines and Australia's Qantas Airways declined to provide detailed targets as the situation evolves.

Chinese airlines are likely to make significant increases to capacity from the end of March, coinciding with the start of the summer scheduling season, Morningstar analyst Cheng Weng told clients in a note.

Rebound ‘with a vengeance'

The prospect of cash-rich Chinese flocking to shopping streets across the world boosted luxury stocks this week, as China accounts for 21 percent of the world's 350 billion euro ($371.91 billion) luxury goods market.

As the Lunar New Year holiday – typically a peak travel period for Chinese tourists – starts on Jan 21, some businesses are already gearing up.

Sofitel Sentosa in Singapore is creating Lunar New Year packages aimed at Chinese visitors, including a hotpot buffet and romantic packages for couples, said Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, general manager of that hotel and the upcoming Raffles Sentosa, as the company bets that a travel rebound will come "with a vengeance".

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In Japan, tour bus firm Hato Bus says next month it will try out Chinese-language tours it had halted during the pandemic, with the aim of a full resumption by the spring, a spokesperson said.

Travelers arrive at the international terminal at Sydney Airport, as countries react to the new coronavirus Omicron variant amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in Sydney, Australia, Nov 30, 2021. (LOREN ELLIOTT / REUTERS)

Japan is requiring a negative COVID-19 test on arrival from Chinese visitors, and those who test positive must quarantine for seven days under new border measures taking effect on Dec 30.

The United States said it would impose mandatory COVID tests on travelers from China, joining India and Italy in taking new measures.

Australia, Germany, Thailand and others however said they would not impose additional rules on Chinese travel for now, with France taking to social media platform Sina Weibo to emphasize it welcomed Chinese friends "with open arms".

In Vietnam, Saigon Halong Hotel in Halong Bay expects it will receive Chinese arrivals from the second quarter of next year.