2023 Labor Day Travel in China Recovers to Pre-Pandemic Levels
The 2023 Chinese Labor Day Holiday saw an explosion in domestic travel and tourism, with spending and movement exceeding 2019 levels as people were able to travel unimpeded for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, international travel increased significantly from previous years, but failed to recover to 2019 levels, despite a surge in demand. We break down the latest holiday travel data from China’s government ministries and online travel agencies to discuss the rebound in Chinese tourism and the latest travel trends.
The Chinese Labor Day Holiday in 2023 saw a huge surge in travel and tourism, as the number of domestic trips recovered and even surpassed 2019 levels for the first time since the start of the pandemic, according to data from China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MOCT) and various online travel agencies (OTAs).
China’s Labor Day Holiday, which took place from April 29 to May 3, 2023, is one of the three annual “Golden Week” holidays, along with the Chinese New Year and the National Day holidays. The holiday has therefore become one of the country’s peak tourist seasons, with hundreds of millions setting off for holidays and family visits every year. However, travel during the Labor Day holiday in the last few years, and 2022 in particular, saw significantly reduced numbers due to travel restrictions related to COVID-19.
The 2023 Labor Day Holiday is the first national holiday since the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in late 2022 in which domestic travel has completely recovered to – and even surpassed – pre-pandemic levels. This impressive rebound suggests that the country’s tourism and travel industry has largely recovered from the impact of the pandemic and that the anxieties surrounding travel and being in crowded places that lingered for some people during the 2023 Chinese New Year holiday have mostly disappeared.
Below we look at the latest data from the MOCT and Chinese OTAs on China’s domestic and international travel during the 2023 May Day holiday and discuss emerging travel trends.
Overview of 2023 Chinese Labor Day Holiday travel
Domestic travel exceeds 2019 levels
According to data released by the MOCT on May 3, there were a total of 274 million domestic trips during the May Day holiday nationwide, a year-on-year increase of 70.83 percent. This is equivalent to over 119 percent of the numbers recorded in the same period in 2019. Meanwhile, revenue from domestic tourism reached RMB 148 billion (approx. US$21.4 billion), a year-on-year increase of 128.9 percent and reaching 100.7 percent of the levels recorded in the same period in 2019.
According to the Ministry of Transport (MOT), there were an average of 54 million trips per day across national highways, waterways, and airlines during the holiday, an increase of 162.9 percent from 2022.
Among the daily trips, an estimated 18.2 million were made by rail, up 464.4 percent from the same period in 2022; 32.6 million were made by road, up 99.1 percent; 1.4 million were made via waterways, up 114.2 percent; and around 1.9 million were made through air, up 507.4 percent from 2022.
There was also estimated to have been an average of around 62.1 million vehicles on national highways per day, the majority of which were small passenger cars, around 56.3 million per day on average.
Domestic flights rebound
According to data from FlightAI, the flight tracking platform owned by Trip.com Group (which also owns OTA Ctrip), there were over 80,000 domestic flights made during the Chinese Labor Day Holiday, with the daily average around 15 percent higher than in 2019.
Demand for flights appears to have outpaced supply; although domestic flight operations have returned to full capacity, the search popularity of flight tickets was 162 percent higher than in the same period in 2019.
The average price of flight tickets has also increased by 39 percent from 2019 to RMB 1,211 for one-way domestic flight tickets.
The most popular domestic flight routes were those between Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, and Chengdu.
Outbound travel increases, but remains below pre-pandemic levels
Outbound travel also recorded a major increase, as travelers were able to leave the country for the first May Day holiday since the start of the pandemic. According to Ctrip data, the overall volume of bookings for outbound travel increased by nearly 700 percent compared with the same period last year, with outbound air ticket and hotel bookings increasing by nearly 900 percent and 450 percent, respectively, compared with the same period in 2022.
However, despite the jump in international bookings from 2022, the volume of international flight bookings has yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels. According to Ctrip data, international flights during the Labor Day Holiday reached about 40 percent of the level recorded in 2019, despite search interest increasing by more than 60 percent compared to that same year.
Meanwhile, according to the Chinese OTA Tuniu, nearly 30 percent of users that traveled overseas went to Hong Kong and Macau. Other popular locations included Thailand, the Maldives, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Russia, and Fiji.
The slow recovery of international travel to and from China is partly because there are still fewer international flight routes in operation than there were prior to the pandemic. This is particularly true of flights to Europe and North America, with US-China flights reportedly still down 94 percent from pre-pandemic levels at the end of April 2023. On May 3, 2023, the US Department of Transportation issued an order allowing Chinese airlines to operate 12 round-trips to and from the US per week, a move that could help to increase travel between the two countries.
This has meant that prices for international tickets have remained relatively high, although this is a problem that persists across all of Asia, not just China. According to Ctrip data, the average cost of a one-way international flight ticket during the Labor Day Holiday was RMB 2,104 (approx. US$304), an increase of 34 percent from the same period in 2019.
Consumption and cultural activities rebound
In addition to the recovery of travel, the Chinese Labor Day Holiday also saw a major uptick in sales for tourist attractions, events, and activities, with numbers in some cases exceeding 2019 levels.
For instance, according to Ctrip data, the number of tickets sold for domestic scenic areas increased ninefold from the previous year and doubled from the same period in 2019. The five most popular scenic spots for surrounding tourists were: Shanghai Disney Resort, Humble Administrator’s Garden, Huangshan Scenic Area, Mount Emei, and Mount Huashan.
According to the MOCT, a total of about 47,500 “mass cultural activities”, such as square dances, singing, and “village evenings” were held across the country, with about 166 million participants.
Additionally, there were a total of 31,100 commercial performances held across the country, and China’s box office revenue reached RMB 1.5 billion with around 8.6549 million people watching the performances.
Meanwhile, 86 percent of China’s A-level tourist attractions (tourist attractions that have received an official rating from China National Tourism Administration) were open as normal during the holiday, a total of 12,800. The majority of those that were not open were due to seasonal closures in the northern part of the country.
2023 Chinese Labor Day Holiday travel trends
Rebound in long-distance travel
Data from Ctrip shows that people traveled further afield compared to previous years. According to the data, the travel radius increased by 25 percent compared to 2022, while inter-provincial hotel bookings accounted for over 70 percent of total hotel bookings.
The average distance traveled by plane was 1638 km, which is approximately the distance from Shanghai to the regional capital of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot. This marks a four-year peak, with the distance returning to 98 percent of the average recorded in the same period in 2019, according to Ctrip. Travel distances by high-speed rail also increased significantly, with one-way trips reaching 389 km, around 80 percent of the level in 2019, which is approximately equal to a one-way trip from Shanghai to Huangshan, a city, and the name of a scenic mountain in Anhui Province.
The increase in the distance traveled during the Labor Day Holiday marks a reversal of a trend seen during the pandemic when due to the sporadic nature of China’s COVID-19 restrictions, people increasingly favored short-haul trips or city staycations over longer distance trips. This increase in short-haul trips, in turn, helped to spur the popularity of activities such as city camping and so-called “self-driving tours”, which enable more flexibility.
Younger generations becoming important consumer group
People born after the year 2000 are becoming an increasingly important consumer group for China’s domestic tourist industry and outbound tourism. According to Ctrip, the booking volume of the so-called “post-00s” generation increased by more than 10 times compared with the same period in 2019.
In addition, many post-00s tourists are also venturing abroad for the first time, mostly to destinations in Asia, with some of the most popular first-time international bookings for people aged 18 to 23 being Bangkok, Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur.
Ctrip also noted that the spending power of new college graduates and younger users who have recently entered the workforce is also becoming more prominent in the tourism space. For instance, for outbound travel and group tour products on the Ctrip platform, these users spent RMB 6,562 (approx. US$949) during the Chinese Labor Day Holiday, an increase of around 25 percent from pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, the order price of outbound independent travel products was close to RMB 15,000 (approx. US$2,170).
Self-driving tours remain popular
Despite the increase in long-haul travel, self-driving tours, in which people hire a car and drive themselves to various destinations and tourist sites, are only increasing in popularity. During the Labor Day Holiday, domestic car rental orders increased by 574 percent year-on-year, which is an increase of more than 300 percent over the same period in 2019.
In addition, people now appear to be traveling further during their self-driving tours, as shown by the fact that cross-city pickup and return bookings increased by 137 percent year-on-year.
Nearby Asian countries see uptick in travelers from China
Although outbound travel has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, it is clear that some regions have already begun to benefit from the reopening of China’s borders.
Data from Ctrip shows that nearby Asian countries were the first choice for travelers from mainland China, with nearly 70 percent of intended outbound travel during the Labor Day Holiday being to Southeast Asia. Some of the most popular destinations were the regions of Hong Kong and Macao, as well as Singapore, Phuket, Seoul, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Osaka, and Taipei. In addition, flights and hotel bookings to many of these places exceeded 2019 levels, despite overall outbound travel still falling below.
China was the number one source of international tourists prior to the pandemic, with a total of 155 million traveling abroad in 2019. Many countries’ tourist industries – particularly those in East and Southeast Asia – had come to rely on these travelers as their main sources of income. This increase in travel to Asian destinations therefore bodes well for the rebound of tourist industries in the destination economies.
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