Despite high airfares, SABRE data shows significant outbound travel rebound in China 2023


It is no wonder that the world has been watching and waiting for China to reopen its borders after over three years of Covid-19 restrictions.

Now that China has begun to remove travel restrictions, Sabre has analysed its shopping and booking data to determine the impact of the country’s openness until February 9, 2023, both domestically and internationally.

Important results after announcements of reopening on December 26, January 8, and January 20 include:

• A large increase in shopping-related questions and requests, especially from the outbound tourist sector

• High demand for travel among Chinese tourists notwithstanding high flight costs, with peaks in January and February exceeding 1.5 times the pre-pandemic levels.

• Demand exceeds supply, with Chinese airlines dominating capacity expansion

• New booking patterns imply confidence in long-term travel

An increase in search and reservation requests

Sabre’s shopping insights found that demand for inbound and outgoing China routes increased during the week of 26 December, when China initially announced plans to end quarantine for foreign visitors, and again on 8 January, when mainland China reopened sea and land connections with Hong Kong.

After the announcements, weekly searches for China-related routes (including the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau) have increased steadily, with average weekly searches in the first five weeks of 2023 through February 5, 2023, being 78% higher than average weekly searches in the fourth quarter of 2022.

Immediately following the news at the end of last year that China will reopen its borders, interest increased. On January 8, China opened sea and land crossings with Hong Kong and ended the requirement for incoming travellers to undergo quarantine, resulting in another immediate increase in search and shopping requests, as Chinese travellers, many of whom had been unable to visit family for years due to China’s previous zero-Covid policy, rushed to make reservations.

The celebration of the first Chinese New Year without travel restrictions spurred travel interest in the area, with high levels of outward, inbound, and domestic travel suggesting robust travel demand and trust in China.

It was stated on January 20 that the prohibition on group travel will be lifted on February 6. The average number of bookings for the preceding two weeks increased by 60 per cent between January 30 and February 5, compared to the previous two weeks.

High outbound reservations but stagnant incoming tourists.

Already, the reopening of China is proving to be a major boon for tourist recovery and a potential driver of economic expansion in the Asia-Pacific region. In general, outbound travel has returned more quickly than incoming travel to the region, with outbound reservations accounting for 43.5% of 2023’s total travel through February 9, compared to 37% during the same period in 2019.

As of February 9, Japan, Thailand, and Korea are the top three destinations for Chinese outbound travel in 2023, with Korea moving from fifth place in 2019 to third rank. Bookings for the United Kingdom, Thailand, and the Philippines have rebounded the quickest compared to the same time period in 2019. Indonesia, a leading outbound destination in 2019, fell out of the top 10 to be replaced by the Philippines.

During the epidemic, it was stated that Indonesia slowed down the promotion of their location to Chinese tourists, which may have affected Indonesia’s place on the list. Australia’s slip to ninth rank may have been influenced by restrictions placed on travel from China.

Yet, although outgoing travel is seeing a robust recovery, inbound travel appears to be hampered by limitations in place.

Long-awaited reunions feed incoming reservations.

Taiwan, the United States, Thailand, Korea, the United Kingdom, and Canada are the top sources of inbound travel to China so far in 2023, with Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Canada bouncing back the fastest in terms of recovery as of February 9.

Given that inbound passengers must possess a legal permit for a job, study, or reunion, a diplomatic visa, or a legitimate business card, it is conceivable that one of the primary reasons for inbound travel during the protracted lockdown period is for long­ anticipated family reunions. This is consistent with demographic data released in 2021, which indicated that Thailand, Canada, and the United Kingdom were home to the greatest number of foreign nationals.

From 2019 to 2023, the proportion of outbound trips lasting more than two weeks will increase from 14% to 21%. (through February 9). This may be attributable to travellers visiting relatives deciding to maximise their vacation after extended separations.

Long-term travel assurance and novel reservation practices.

Sabre data demonstrates the possibility for long-term travel confidence, despite the fact that there is still a lot to go until all travel restrictions are eliminated for travel to and from China. Booking windows may be a significant confidence measure since passengers are more likely to book long in advance if they are certain in their trip intentions.

As of February 5, 33% of all inbound bookings and 43% of all outgoing bookings were made more than two months in advance, indicating likely anticipation that travel restrictions would continue to loosen over the following two months and beyond. Just 21% of outbound and 14% of inbound travel bookings were made within two weeks, compared to 37% and 30% for the same time in 2019.

Compared to 2019, when there were more last-minute bookings, travellers appear to be reserving longer in advance today. This may be related to the fact that tourists have become accustomed to pre-planning their journeys, as a result of the Covid-19 epidemic, or to the fact that capacity for Chinese routes has not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels, leaving fewer seats available for last-minute reservations.

Bookings are also gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels, with outward travel reservations made by February 9 for travel in the first week of April surpassing 70% of all passenger reservations made by February 9 in 2019.

Demand exceeds supply, therefore ticket prices stay high.

Comparative to the first quarter of 2019, airline capacity on international flights to and from China (including Hong Kong and Macau) has returned to around 27% as of February 6, with a projected rise beginning in April.

Presently, the majority of the scheduled capacity is provided by airlines from Greater China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. More than two-thirds (65%) of total international route capacity is held by Chinese carriers, up from 60% in 2019. Global (non-Chinese) airlines have yet to build considerable capacity for China, and SEA airlines control just 12 per cent of international capacity for China, compared to 16 per cent in 2019.

With what seems to be a delayed capacity recovery, Sabre ticketing data suggests that ticket prices for the main Greater China incoming and outgoing routes are estimated to be higher than in 2019, with ticket sales growing since September 2022. Since airlines have begun to expand capacity, fares have decreased to around 1.5 times pre-pandemic levels in February, down from 2 times in January. But, prices are anticipated to stay elevated until capacity has been fully restored.

Since demand has outpaced supply, resulting in increased rates, travellers look eager to fly and are demonstrating reduced price sensitivity, potentially as a result of the “revenge travel” phenomena caused by the lengthy lockdown.

Sabre’s Senior Vice President of Airline Global Sales, Darren Rickey, remarked that the speed with which Chinese tourism began to recover following the announcement that restrictions will be eased illustrates the significant demand for both inbound and outward travel. “We are aware that airlines in China have been preparing for reopening by ensuring they have the assistance of Sabre’s superior technology to swiftly adapt to changing industry conditions, capitalise on recovery trends, and generate their own development momentum. We are eager to see what the remainder of the year has in store for Chinese tourism.”