White passenger plane takes off from the airport runway

With China ditching its zero-Covid policy, it has triggered a surge in flight bookings, according to the latest data from ForwardKeys.

On December 7, 2022, Chinese authorities announced that a negative PCR test would no longer be required for air travel between provinces. Domestic flight bookings immediately surged 56% on the previous week and continued to increase 69% the following week. On December 26, 2022, China removed all Covid-related restrictions on domestic air travel; and bookings surged again, reaching 50% of 2019’s level in the final week of the year.

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Domestic flight bookings for the upcoming Chinese New Year period were still behind 2019 and 2021 levels

As of January 3, domestic flight bookings during the upcoming Chinese New Year period, January 7 – February 15, were 71% behind 2019 levels and 8% behind 2021, with the most popular destinations being Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Kunming, Sanya, Shenzhen, Haikou, Guangzhou and Chongqing.

China’s aviation regulator plans to restore flight capacity to 70% of pre-pandemic levels by January 6, and to 88% by January 31. However, a full recovery is not possible immediately, as the industry needs some time to re-hire staff and meet all flight safety and service requirements.

The cap on the number of international flights to China and quarantine measures was lifted on January 8. In addition, Chinese citizens can now renew expired passports and apply for new ones.

Outbound flight bookings between December 23, 2022 and January 3 this year jumped 192% compared to same period last year, but are still 85% behind pre-pandemic levels.

The most popular return trips currently are to Macau, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Singapore, Bangkok, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Frankfurt. Bookings to Abu Dhabi, which has traditionally been a major gateway between China and the West, are 51% behind 2019. Onward bookings from there include 11% to Paris, 9% to Barcelona, 5% to London, 3% to Munich and 3% to Manchester.

67% of bookings made between December 26, 2022 and January 3, 2023 were for travel during the Chinese New Year period.

With current scheduled international flight capacity only at 10% of 2019’s level, high ticket prices, and some destinations requiring a pre-flight Covid-19 test or on arrival testing and quarantine for Chinese visitors, it may take a while before seeing a resurgence in Chinese tourists exploring the globe, shared Olivier Ponti, VP insights, ForwardKeys.

He added: “A bottleneck processing passport renewals and visa applications is likely; and some countries, such as South Korea and Japan, are restricting short-term visas for Chinese travellers until the end of this month. Right now, we expect the Chinese outbound market will pick up strongly in 2Q2023, when airlines schedule capacity for the spring and summer, which include the May holiday, Dragon Boat festival in June and summer holidays.”

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