(Bloomberg) -- During last year’s bruising Covid lockdown in Shanghai, Qin Bing dreamed of traveling overseas. As China reopens its borders on Sunday after three years of Covid isolation, however, the 36-year-old marketing manager is staying put.
Most Read from Bloomberg
In fact, the $280 billion force that is Chinese tourism may not reemerge for months, thanks to lingering infections, restrictions for new arrivals and surging costs tied to a breakdown of the global travel infrastructure.
“Ticket prices are going crazy,” said Qin, who used to fly abroad at least three times a year before the pandemic but now fears Covid reinfection and high flight costs. “Travel packages are only for people who have money to burn; definitely not me.”
China’s 1.4 billion residents endured the strictest mobility curbs of the pandemic, largely cut off from the world for three years as the government pursued a zero tolerance approach. The pent-up demand was expected to unleash a surge of travel and spending after China scrapped its quarantine starting this Sunday.
Yet the tenor of its long-awaited reopening boom seems to be diverging from the revenge travel — an all-out, bucket-list trip to make up for lost time — that many anticipated. The follow-on boost for businesses starved of China’s high-spending tourists will likely be delayed, as a full recovery to pre-pandemic levels may take months.
One gate-limiting hurdle is the explosion of Covid across China. Millions of people are sick or recovering, and the numbers are expected to remain high for weeks as the virus migrates from big cities to rural and outlying areas.
The size and scope of the outbreak led other countries to tighten border rules, including popular destinations like Japan, South Korea, and the US.
“Most consumers aren’t mentally ready to travel to another country right after recovering from Covid,” said Chen Xin, head of China leisure and transport research at UBS. “We may need to wait until next year at the earliest to see the outbound travel return to pre-Covid levels.”
Airlines aren’t rushing to add capacity either.
Flights leaving China in the first quarter are at 10.7% of pre-pandemic levels, though they are more than double the anemic rates from a year ago, according to aviation analytics company Cirium. The dearth of options mean it’s expensive to fly almost anywhere overseas. Average outbound tickets cost 3,822 yuan ($556) as of Jan. 3, according to Tongcheng Travel data, up 18% just since Christmas.
It’s unlikely that international flights can meaningfully increase before the Lunar New Year in two weeks, and travel visas and passports may take longer to obtain, UBS’s Chen said.
Indeed, contradicting concerns that tourist hotspots from the Eiffel Tower to the Grand Canyon will be strained once again by Chinese revelers, travel agencies say they’re struggling to persuade people to book trips. Agents are worried the low prices of the past decade won’t return anytime soon.
While a seven-day trip from southwestern China to the Thai capital of Bangkok would’ve cost 1,880 yuan ($274) in 2018, a similar trip now starts at 7,580 yuan ($1,103), according to Zhao Ling, a Deyang-based travel agent who works for Chengdu Everbright International Tour Co.
“A lot of people have been asking about packages, but no one’s booking,” Zhao said.
Tourist meccas are tempering expectations. Thailand is expecting 300,000 visitors from China in the first quarter of this year, less than 10% of pre-pandemic levels, according to Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul. Only 60,000 visitors are expected in January.
Hoteliers in Phuket, the southern island famed for its white sand beaches, are anticipating a slow Lunar New Year. Mainland tourists aren’t expected to arrive in large numbers, said Suksit Suvunditkul, president of the Thai Hotels Association Southern Chapter and chief executive officer of Deevana Hotels and Resorts.
There are few scheduled flights and his hotel hasn’t seen a surge in advanced bookings from Chinese tourists yet, Suksit said.
Even if Chinese tourists come, the once-bustling resorts, sights and night markets may not be ready. Many hotspots have been battered by the pandemic — and the continued absence of the once ubiquitous and biggest-spending visitors, whose money had a supersized impact on local economies.
The global supply chain that kept Chinese visitors happy — from buses to Chinese restaurants to Mandarin-speaking tour guides — has largely collapsed. Labor shortages are raging in places like Singapore and Thailand, where most businesses can’t hire workers or upgrade amenities quickly enough after a years-long dry spell. Millions of workers once in the hospitality industry have changed jobs.
“Singapore is just not ready to handle the sudden influx,” said Stanley Foo, founder and managing partner at Oriental Travel & Tours in Singapore. “I’m most worried about the manpower shortages in attractions. We can’t even handle the current number of visitors.”
Chinese operators of so-called “zero-dollar” packages — pre-paid tours in which tourists were shepherded through shopping and sightseeing itineraries, often with commissioned stops at overpriced souvenir shops — are also worried.
“It took us 10 years to get Thailand tour packages down from 10,000 yuan ($1,455) to 2,000 yuan ($291), years of effort and relationships, a lot of buy-in from airlines, hotels, local stores,” said Zhao, who used to lead a 30-person group every month before the pandemic. “There was a whole supply chain. Now that chain is completely broken.”
Zhao has since pivoted to offering domestic tour packages, primarily to Xinjiang and Tibet.
China’s holidaymakers may prefer skiing in Harbin or shopping in Hainan’s duty-free malls to traveling abroad over the Lunar New Year, according to UBS’s Chen. Domestic flights have recovered much faster than international flights, with 12,216 trips scheduled on Jan. 8. That’s nearly 100% of the domestic capacity in 2019, VariFlight data show.
Still, the return of Chinese tourists after a three-year absence, even if just a trickle for now, is raising spirits in the global tourism industry. Bookings for international travel during the Lunar New Year surged more than 540% from the near-nil level of a year ago, according to Trip.com.
“We do miss them,” said Singapore’s Foo.
--With assistance from Pathom Sangwongwanich, Danny Lee, Chunying Zhang and Thomas Kutty Abraham.
Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.