Golden Week helps China’s travel apps inch toward recovery

Golden Week helps China’s travel apps inch toward recovery

Passengers boarding a flight from Chengdu to Shanghai on January 30, 2020. (Image credit: TechNode/Eliza Gkritsi)

The Chinese National Day holiday, known as “Golden Week” for spurring travel and other consumption, ended on Thursday. This year, the holiday was watched particularly closely—as the last major holiday of the year, it was seen as a harbinger of whether China’s battered tourism industry would rebound quickly following the onset of the pandemic early this year.

Shift to domestic travel

Although the virus may be less of a concern for Chinese tourists compared with those in other countries, the government and consumers themselves remained cautious about traveling overseas.

  • Golden Week travel this year was primarily driven by domestic travel, when in recent years the holiday has been viewed as a time for Chinese tourists to take overseas trips.
  • Last year there were more than 7 million (in Chinese) overseas trips made during the holiday. This year, various restrictions on visa applications and quarantine requirements have made cross-border trips impractical.
  • The focus on domestic trips could further slow a full rebound for China’s largest online travel platform, Trip.com, which earned around 35% of its revenue through international travel in the first half of 2019.
  • Demand for short journeys increased, giving rise to self-driving tourism as more holiday makers sought to avoid package tours and exposure to crowded public transportation centers.
  • The shift boosted car rental businesses during the holiday. The number of car rental days on Trip.com platform climbed 50% compared with a year ago, the company said in a statement sent to TechNode. Average spending per car rental order exceeded RMB 2,000. Southwestern Yunnan province and southern Hainan province were popular tourist destinations for those driving themselves.

Competition among travel platforms

  • The shift to domestic tourism has weighed on China’s largest online travel platform, Trip.com. The company has been focused on growing its international travel business amid sharpening competition from Alibaba’s Fliggy and Meituan in domestic travel.
  • In 2018, the company said that it was aiming for its global travel business to make up 40% to 50% of its total revenue within five years.
  • Trip.com expects its revenue to drop by around 50% year on year in the third quarter after it reported that its second quarter revenue plunged 64% year on year.
  • China’s online travel industry is among the worst-hit sectors by the pandemic, which began spreading widely in the country during Spring Festival holiday, the world’s largest human migration event.

Edging toward normalcy

China, where the coronavirus first appeared late last year, had an early start advantage in post-pandemic economic recovery as the government’s measures to control the spread of the virus have largely proved effective. However, the impact of the epidemic is expected to linger as rates of infection worldwide remain stubbornly high. 

  • China tourists generated RMB 466.6 billion ($69.7 billion) in revenue from 637 million  domestic trips during the eight-day Golden Week holiday, according (in Chinese) to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The holiday was extended by one day thanks to overlap with the Mid-Autumn Festival this year.
  • The number of domestic trips was around 80% of last year’s 782 million during the seven-day holiday, which generated nearly RMB 650 billion in tourism revenue.
  • Revenue from this year’s Golden Week tourism accounted for around 70% of revenue earned during the same holiday a year ago. This is a significant improvement over tourism revenue earned during this year’s Tomb Sweeping Day in early April, which sank 80% compared with a year ago.
  • China’s tourism watchdog expects the country’s tourism revenue as well as the number of tourists to halve in 2020
  • Official controls have loosened, but remain in place. Scenic spots like Beijing’s Forbidden City required online reservation in advance and operated at 75% capacity during the holiday. Municipal governments including Shanghai recommended that students and their families refrain from travel. Those who traveled out of the city would have to quarantine for 14 days, which effectively eliminated travel plans for many families, even short-distance trips.

New regulations lend pressure

In addition to the travel slowdown brought by the pandemic, China’s tourism industry is also facing new challenges from the government, which is stepping up regulation of the market.

  • China’s first laws regulating online travel platforms and agencies took effect on Oct. 1. It includes a raft of rules that ban the abuse of big data and other new technologies used in unfair business practices such as user targeting to boost prices, removing negative user reviews, and more.
  • Consumers have accused large Chinese online travel platforms, including Trip.com and Alibaba-backed Fliggy, of charging higher prices to customers who they think will be willing to pay more for the same product or service by analyzing user data. Both companies have denied the allegations.
  • Implementation is expected to quash such practices in the online travel market, where price manipulation is common. It may also act as an example for other sectors that are thought to use similar tactics, such as ride-hailing and e-commerce.
  • The rules could have short-term cooling effects on revenue while long-term benefits could include better user retention. An industry analyst told Xinhua (in Chinese) that without the rule, there was little reason to do away with the practice, which could grow revenues 20%.

Emma Lee is Shanghai-based tech writer, covering startups and tech happenings in China and Asia in general. We are looking for stories related to tech and China. Reach her at lixin@technode.com.
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