Chinese tourists are back, but numbers still far from pre-COVID levels

People walk at a tourism site in Qianmen street, in Beijing,

By Joe Cash and Pasit Kongkunakornkul

BEIJING/BANGKOK (Reuters) - Bookings in China for trips abroad during the upcoming May Day holiday point to a continued recovery in travel to Asian countries, but the numbers remain far off pre-COVID levels with long-haul airfares soaring and not enough flights available.

Overseas tour bookings for the upcoming holiday, for which many in China are off from April 29 until May 3, are up 157% from the beginning of April, according to Ctrip, the country's largest online travel firm.

But, given airlines capacity is yet to fully recover after China kept its borders shut for three years and underlying consumer demand remains weak, the numbers do not compare well with the heyday of Chinese outbound tourism.

In February, over 150,000 Chinese tourists travelled to Thailand, the latest data from the Thai Ministry of Tourism show - a three year high but still 85% below February 2019 levels.

Trips to Japan and South Korea have only recovered to 5%-10% of February 2019 levels.

"It mainly has to do with supply-side constraints in the air industry and tourism sector in destination countries," said Sheana Yue, China economist at Capital Economics.

China tourism

Thailand is the most popular destination, with the United States the only non-Asian destination in the top 10, to the disappointment of luxury boutiques on the shopping streets of Paris or Milan.

"There has been a lot of news in China about inflation in Europe and high energy prices," said Ying Zhang, a research analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Flying high

In 2019, 155 million Chinese travelled abroad, spending $254.6 billion, or close to the GDP of Vietnam, according to estimates by Citi. Chinese tourists used to make up 10% of European arrivals from outside the continent.

Flights to Europe are up to 80% more expensive than before the pandemic, according to ForwardKeys, a travel data firm.

Prices on flights from mainland China to Southeast Asia have dropped 49% in March from a year ago, according to aviation data provider Flight Master.

Chinese tourists making a comeback is crucial for regional economies. They accounted for 30-35% of all arrivals into Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, and South Korea in the summer of 2019, and 25% of visitors to the Philippines.

In Thailand and the Philippines, their pre-pandemic contribution to economic growth was particularly significant.

Contribution of travel and tourism to GDP

Pre-pandemic, China was Australia's top source of tourists, but numbers following Beijing's reopening of borders have only trickled back.

(Reporting by Joe Cash in Beijing; Graphics by Kripa Jayaram in Bengaluru and Pasit Kongkunakornkul in Bangkok; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Sonali Paul)