As ‘zero-COVID’ unravels, some Chinese still fear travel abroad | Business and Economy

Beijing, China – Zhou Jing, a 36-year-old business owner in China’s Hebei province, is relieved as Beijing begins to relax its harsh “COVID-free” strategy.

After taking strict precautions to avoid COVID-19 for the past three years, Zhou finally tested positive for the virus earlier this month as cases surged across the country.

Unlike the millions of Chinese who were infected with the virus earlier in the pandemic, Zhou was able to recover at home rather than in an isolation facility.

Earlier this month, Beijing announced it would “optimize” its COVID policies by allowing mild cases to be isolated at home, as well as limiting lockdowns, eliminating mass testing and lifting mass testing. Restrict domestic travel.

Zhou is happy to be able to face her illness alongside her loved ones and she is happy to know she won’t be restricted from doing daily errands like going to the supermarket in the future.

However, Zhou, who runs a small travel agency, is unlikely to be away from her home any time soon.

For Zhou, international travel – which she does at least twice a year before 2020 – is inevitable for the foreseeable future due to the risk of virus transmission, even if border crossings are limited. world is reopening in the next few weeks or months.

“I know you can get COVID-19 anywhere now, but at least here in China, I will be with my family,” Zhou told Al Jazeera. “Here, the current variant [Omicron] seems more stable. If I go abroad, I fear the virus may mutate.”

Zhou is not alone in being scared.

Anti-pandemic workers in white hazmat suits gather in front of a row of apartments in Beijing, where people are being isolated at home.  They were standing in front of the blue tents and about to start their shift.
China begins to lift strict “no COVID” policy [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

In a survey of 4,000 Chinese consumers conducted by consulting firm Oliver Wyman at the end of October, more than half of respondents said they plan to postpone traveling abroadeven if borders reopen tomorrow, with the fear of contagion seen as a primary concern.

Imke Wouters, a retail and consumer goods partner at the consulting firm, told Reuters news agency: “People have become cautious. “So even if they can travel, we don’t think they’ll be right back.”

Such anxiety could pose a challenge to the nascent recovery of the post-pandemic international travel market, which has been stifled by China’s ongoing border closure. China’s population spent $288 billion on international travel in 2018, nearly a quarter of global spending on tourism.

Other data suggests that Chinese may be eager to travel as long as the government lifts numerous restrictions on movement in and out of the country.

Dragon Trail International, which focuses on China’s outbound tourism market, surveyed 1,003 people in the mainland between November 7 and 20 and found that more than half of the respondents would go abroad within a year. years since reopening.

That survey found that “quarantine, strict policies, and inconvenience,” rather than fear of the virus, were the biggest barriers to travel, with 60% of respondents expressing expressed hope that the quarantine upon arrival would be eased.

Lily Zhang, a small business owner in Tianjin, said she is ready to travel abroad alone and do business with international clients by 2023. However, she is not confident that she can go. traveling with her family, especially when her husband returns home. Tianjin just last month after nearly 3 years stuck in the Philippines.

Zhang told Al Jazeera: “I don’t mind being hit by COVID-19 anymore, even if I get sick from abroad. “But it will be difficult if our children get sick because that becomes an additional responsibility. We hope to have a clear understanding of the rules upon arrival so that we can decide to travel as a family.”

Simon He, who is studying a graduate program in Denmark, said he decided to return to China in January to join an exchange program in Shanghai despite obstacles, including eight days quarantine upon arrival.

After contracting COVID-19 in October, he is confident he can control the disease with home treatment and looks forward to traveling next year.

“Covid-19 infection is inevitable,” He said. “Although cases may peak during the Lunar New Year holiday, I believe things will get better. I will consider traveling more then.”

People enjoy the beach in Hainan, China.
Some travel experts believe that domestic tourism hotspots like Hainan are about to return [John Ruwitch/Reuters]

For some Chinese, domestic travel can be a substitute for a vacation abroad.

Sienna Parulis-Cook, director of marketing and communications for Dragon Trail, told Al Jazeera: “The recent lifting of restrictions on domestic travel in China bodes very well for the recovery of tourism. China in the coming months and beyond.

Parulis-Cook said Hainan is likely to return as a domestic getaway, as well as Zhangjiakou, Chongli and other popular “winter tourism” destinations, though she cautions there is “no point in sight” come.” [is] immunity” from the impact of possibly re-implementing strict policies.

But Josie Chen, a travel agency operator, predicts domestic tourism, especially high-end luxury hotels and ski resorts, will be affected from 2023 because “many Chinese people eager to go abroad”. Her company’s data shows that most of the wealthy Chinese go to European or North American countries to buy luxury goods.

“Everybody hopes that the border will reopen soon, but somehow this is not good for our business,” Chen told Al Jazeera. “Domestic travel agencies once again need to explore the market and change the business model if we are to survive another year.”

Parulis-Cook believes that expectations for inbound and outbound tourism in China “will adjust accordingly”.

“The current shift in the message in China from officials and the media, to emphasizing that COVID-19 is actually a very mild disease, will also help allay any fears related to the virus. virus while traveling abroad,” she said.

Both Chen and Parulis-Cook said Hong Kong was the first choice of Chinese tourists with whom they communicated.

China’s border with Hong Kong has been closed since the start of 2020, although the Asian financial hub last week lifted a three-day surveillance period under which international visitors were barred from entering the restaurant. bar and restaurant upon arrival.

Chen said Southeast Asian countries could see a large influx of Chinese visitors next year.

Parulis-Cook said she expects the five-day Labor Day holiday in April and May to be the first major period for overseas trips.

However, Zhou feels this is not the right time to travel until the coronavirus is “globally weakened or under control”.

“A lot of young people who haven’t traveled in a few years will be eager to go out,” says Zhou. “But my biggest worry is when they get sick after going abroad. They might come back with a more extreme variant, and that will only cause more trouble for everyone.”

For others like Zhang, life has to go on.

“I don’t want COVID-19 to bother me anymore,” Zhang said, adding that she hopes the Chinese people learn to live with the coronavirus. “I just ignore it. My life is not just about the pandemic.

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