By Sophie Yu and Casey Hall
BEIJING (Reuters) - Travel during China's Golden Week holiday, which begins on Saturday, is set to hit its lowest in years, analysts say, as COVID-19 concerns spur calls for people to avoid travel and keep to their cities, while economic woes damp spending.
One of the longest stretches of public holidays, which celebrates the founding of modern China in 1949, the period is a bellwether for consumer demand in the world's second largest economy, when travel and spending traditionally peak.
While global travel has started to open up as many countries opt to live with COVID-19, China's tourism sector has crumpled under authorities' decision to double down on their zero-COVID approach with drastic curbs, such as citywide lockdowns.
"It is not realistic to hold high hopes for tourism this year," said Liu Simin, an official of the tourism arm of the China Society for Futures Studies, a research institute based in Beijing.
If trips this holiday reached half the levels of 2019 and spending over the period reached 30% to 40% of holiday spending before the pandemic, that would amount to a "pretty good" result, he added.
Liu's projection of a halving in the number of trips would make for the worst figure in a decade, according to Reuters calculations based on government data.
In the past two years, China's Golden Week travel and spending have fallen short of the levels of 2019, which racked up 782 million trips and tourism revenue of 650 billion yuan ($90 billion).
URGED TO STAY PUT
Health officials urged people this month to stay put for Golden Week and adopted new rules requiring negative COVID test results less than 48 hours old for travellers planning to take trains and planes, or cross provincial borders by bus.
And a slowing economy, battered by high youth unemployment and a faltering property market, is driving many to tighten their wallets.
About 7.8 million passenger trips are likely be made by air over the holiday, down 16% from last year, while daily passenger flights will fall at least a fifth, flight data services company VariFlight estimates.
And the transport ministry has forecast a fall of 30% in the number of road travellers.
"I don't want to give an estimate, it's going to be too gloomy," said a travel analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In the southern resort city of Sanya, a long-time magnet for domestic holidaymakers with its white sand beaches and duty-free malls, the pessimism is building.
While curbs have largely been lifted after a lengthy COVID lockdown this summer in some parts of the city on the island province of Hainan, stories of desperate tourists unable to leave have made a deep impression.
Sanya "is not back", said Shirley, the manager of a luxury store in the city, where travel industry workers despair of the return of Golden Week tourists.
"Each hotel only has occupancy in the single digits."
($1=7.2287 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Sophie Yu and Casey Hall; Editing by Brenda Goh and Clarence Fernandez)