Published: 12:50, May 9, 2024
PDF View
May Day air travel back in business
By Zhu Wenqian

Outbound tourist flows return to pre-pandemic 2019 magnitude

Tourists flock to the Louvre Museum in Paris on May 3, 2024. (FENG YONGBIN / CHINA DAILY)

Travel abroad was popular for Chinese tourists during the recent May Day holiday, and they traveled further to some niche destinations like Saudi Arabia, in addition to traditional hot spots like Southeast Asia, industry players said.

During the five-day holiday that lasted from May 1 to Sunday, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore were among the top 10 overseas destinations for Chinese travelers, as the latter three Southeast Asian countries all adopted visa-free entries for Chinese visitors, said Qunar, a Beijing-based online travel agency.

The total booking volumes of international flights and overseas hotels for the May Day holiday both hit new highs on the platform, Qunar said.

Saudi Arabia, Spain, Hungary, France, Austria and Italy saw significant growth in the number of travel product bookings on a yearly basis. In addition, some Chinese tourists booked trips to Murmansk, Russia; Athens and Santorini in Greece; as well as some smaller cities in Spain and Portugal, the agency said.

READ MORE: China sees over 1.3 billion passenger trips amid Labor Day holiday

"For traditional popular overseas destinations such as Japan, France, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, Chinese travelers are no longer satisfied with simple sightseeing, and increasingly have been exploring small towns in-depth," said Xiao Peng, a researcher with Qunar's big data research institute.

Chinese visitors arrived at Burgundy, France — a renowned wine cultivation region — or Otaru, Japan, the movie-shooting backdrop for the Japanese hit film Love Letter. They also visited Zermatt, Switzerland, where travelers can go skiing all year round, and even Recife, Brazil, hometown of former soccer star Rivaldo, Xiao said.

Outbound tours organized in small groups and with flexible schedules were popular among Chinese travelers, and they preferred self-guided tours for short-haul trips and group tours for long-haul trips, said Tuniu, an online travel agency.

For instance, travelers mainly booked packages that included both flight tickets and hotels, and took self-guided tours in places such as the Maldives, Bali Island of Indonesia, Singapore and Japan, Tuniu found.

During the May Day holiday, cruises were also sought after by Chinese consumers. Many voyages that departed from Shanghai to Fukuoka, Japan, as well as from Shanghai to Okinawa, Japan, were nearly sold out, Tuniu said.

Meanwhile, since Saudi Arabia was officially listed as a tourist destination for outbound group tours catering to Chinese citizens last year, the niche destination has attracted the attention of an increasing number of Chinese pleasure travelers. As part of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, the country aims to attract 3 million Chinese visitors a year by 2030 amid significant growth in its tourism sector, according to the Saudi Tourism Authority.

Saudi men ride their horses past the Maraya (Mirror), the world's largest mirrored building, in Saudi Arabia's northwestern desert region, in January 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

The authority has also promoted its Middle Eastern local travel resources on Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat, Weibo, Xiaohongshu and Douyin, and tailored content and experiences for Chinese tourists.

Saudia, the kingdom's national flag carrier, has expanded its route network, connecting Saudi Arabia with key destinations worldwide. In August, Saudia launched direct flights between Jeddah and Beijing. Previously, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, was the sole Chinese destination for Saudia.

"As we play a crucial role in the kingdom's economic transformation and the realization of Vision 2030, we remain committed to sustaining this growth trajectory and continuing to elevate Saudia as a symbol of hospitality," said Khaled Tash, the carrier's chief marketing officer.

Meanwhile, Hunan TV's popular travel reality show Divas Hit the Road features Saudi Arabia in its recent season. It showcases the beautiful sightseeing spots and delicacies of the peninsula, as well as Chinese companies' development in the country, and has attracted a large number of young Chinese tourists.

Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines recently launched a new route connecting Beijing and Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia. The debut flight departed Beijing Daxing International Airport on April 16, using an Airbus A330 aircraft, marking the launch of the first regular direct passenger flight by a domestic carrier from the Chinese mainland to Saudi Arabia.

"China and Saudi Arabia have seen increasingly closer economic and trade exchanges. The launch of the Beijing Daxing-Riyadh route represents the deepening cooperation between the two countries in economy, culture, tourism and other fields," said Zhang Dongsheng, deputy director of marketing at China Southern Airlines.

"This route will help significantly promote personnel, economic and trade exchanges between China and Saudi Arabia, and build a more convenient air bridge for mutual understanding and friendship for people from the two countries," Zhang said.

Currently, China Southern operates eight direct flights connecting Beijing Daxing and cities participating in the Belt and Road Initiative, including Almaty, Kazakhstan and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Soon, it plans to launch flights linking Beijing Daxing with Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The carrier said it would continuously launch new flights and add more frequencies to existing flights that connect China with cities in BRI economies. By providing more convenient flight options, this will help build air channels for Sino-foreign economic and trade exchanges and international logistics, and make greater contributions to the initiative.

Booming travel demand has driven growth of the air travel market. In the first quarter, the total number of passenger trips handled in China, including via domestic and international flights, reached nearly 180 million, said the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

The figure, a new high for a first quarter, jumped 37.7 percent on a yearly basis, and grew by 10.2 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels seen in 2019, the CAAC said.

Specifically, domestic flights in the January-March period handled 160 million passenger trips, up 14.3 percent over 2019 levels, and international flights handled 14.1 million passenger trips, rebounding to 78 percent of 2019 figures, the CAAC found.

ALSO READ: Holiday travels bolster world tourism industry

The global air travel market has also witnessed strong growth momentum.

The International Air Transport Association recently released data for March, showing that total demand, measured in revenue-passenger kilometers, grew 13.8 percent compared to March 2023. The passenger load factor in March was 82 percent.

"Demand for travel is strong, and there is every indication that this should continue into the peak Northern Hemisphere summer travel season. It is critical that we have the capacity to meet this demand and ensure a hassle-free travel experience for passengers," said Willie Walsh, IATA's director-general.

"That means making urgent progress to resolve supply chain issues and for airports and air traffic management to be fully staffed and operating at maximum efficiency," Walsh said.

In particular, Asia-Pacific airlines continued to lead in March and saw a 38.5 percent year-on-year increase in demand. Capacity increased 37.4 percent year-on-year and the load factor rose to 85.6 percent, the highest among all regions, the IATA found.