2020-07-16 12:56:37

China is resuming mass tourism for the first time in months, since group tours were banned to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism said travel companies can operate group tours across provincial borders to low-risk areas of the country, pending the approval of local authorities.

The resumption of domestic group tourism after nearly six months, since the sector was suspended in late January, comes as the country is cautiously opening up more businesses following largely successful efforts to combat sporadic clusters of the disease.

As of Thursday, China has just four medium-risk areas, all of which are located in Beijing, following an outbreak last month that was linked to a farmers market and is now contained.

Several tour operators told Sixth Tone that the long-awaited lifting of the freeze on domestic group tours has dramatically increased the number of online searches and consultations for their services. Trip.com, China’s leading online travel agency, said it has witnessed a five-fold increase in such queries.

“It’s as if the industry has been finally discharged from the ICU,” Tao Yongliang, the CEO of Newayer Travel, a Chinese company that specializes in cruises, told Sixth Tone.

Tourism is an important part of China’s economy, contributing 11% to its gross domestic product. The country’s travel industry also employs 79 million people, or over 10% of the total population.

In addition, family and group tours are major revenue generators for tourism companies. The number of domestic travelers during the extended five-day Labor Day holiday in May was slashed in half compared with around 200 million travelers last year, who made a whopping 117.6 billion yuan ($16.8 billion) for China’s tourism sector, according to government estimates.

The pandemic has affected our lives immensely. Many of my colleagues have left the industry because of economic pressure.

However, businesses hoping to cash in on this year’s Labor Day holiday were disappointed when local authorities discouraged people from undertaking cross-city, cross-province, and cross-country tourism.

Ding Youhui, a tour guide based in the southern Guangdong province, told Sixth Tone that opening up inter-provincial tours is a big step toward returning to normalcy.

“From easing city-wide tours to province-wide and now inter-provincial, the tourism industry has gradually recovered, allowing us to regain our hope for the industry,” said Ding, who added that he’s currently earning around one-fourth his usual income. “The pandemic has affected our lives immensely. Many of my colleagues have left the industry because of economic pressure.”

With domestic tourism now on the road to recovery, the industry is having to adapt to new challenges — including physical distancing rules and stricter health guidelines — that may stick around for the foreseeable future.

Zhou Weihong, deputy general manager of Shanghai-based travel company Spring Tour, told Sixth Tone that they’re trying to adapt to the changing market by accommodating people’s concerns about COVID-19. Spring Tour was one of the first tour operators in Shanghai to resume inter-provincial service after the city released its group tour guideline Thursday.

“We are limiting the number of people in each group tour and not arranging activities that involve too many people,” Zhou said.

However, amid the lingering threat of COVID-19, provincial governments are being cautious about opening themselves up to tourism. By Thursday evening, eight provincial-level regions — including Shanghai, Sichuan, Jiangxi, Jilin, Guizhou, Shandong, Qinghai, and Hunan — had released guidelines for group tours.

Meanwhile, tourist attractions are still following orders to limit daily visitors to half their usual capacity — up from just 30% before Tuesday.

Tao, whose company is currently offering group tours to China’s northwestern Xinjiang region — typically a top-selling destination — said he’s having to not only follow local travel guidelines in the specific places his clients visit, but also monitor the health risks for the entire region. Just as he was looking forward to tours departing, Xinjiang on Thursday reported a new COVID-19 case, along with three asymptomatic infections.

Having previously specialized in international travel, Tao has had to make the switch to the domestic market because of coronavirus-related travel restrictions. He said he’s looking forward to getting his business started again after it was stalled for around six months.

“Although we’ve been discharged from the ICU, we’ve still got to rely on ourselves to survive,” he said.

Contributions: Wang Xuandi; editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Visual elements from People Visual, re-edited by Sixth Tone)