China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism released a report on February 18 detailing the shape of the country’s domestic travel industry in 2020. 

Here are some main findings from the data:


The big picture 

As expected, the report revealed a stark fall in domestic numbers with the 2.8 billion tourists evidencing a 52 percent fall from 2019. Within these numbers, the rate at which urban residents curtailed travel exceeded that of rural counterparts, likely a consequence of strict lockdown regulations that recurred across Mainland cities throughout the year.  

Quarterly gains

The sweeping lockdowns introduced by authorities in early 2020 in response to COVID-19 outbreaks resulted in a 83 percent reduction in domestic tourists in Q1. Year-on-year numbers stabilized slowly but surely through the year: Q2 was 51 percent of 2019’s tourist numbers, while Q3 and Q4 reached 34 percent and 33 percent respectively. Domestic tourism had been expected to approach pre-pandemic levels over the Lunar New Year, China’s busiest travel period, but new outbreaks forced the government to once again restrict travel.

Tourism spending

Overall tourism spending was $345 billion in 2020, a decrease of 61 percent on 2019’s numbers. As with domestic numbers, urban spending dropped more significantly than in rural areas (falls of 62 percent and 56 percent respectively). Amid the gloomy data points, however, the per capita tourist spending offers cause for a little optimism. The 18 percent fall compared to 2019’s numbers are not as stark as they might be considering the vast majority of trips were shorter and closer to home. With the virus largely under control in late 2020, the surging interest in domestic travel raised the possibility that China could harness such energy and exceed previous spending records in 2021 and beyond. Such a development would be a boon for an economy that is increasingly focused on boosting domestic consumption.

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Looking forward

Although 2020 repeatedly showed the folly of making bold predictions, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism is anticipating a strong recovery in the coming year. A total of 4.1 billion domestic trips are expected, which, if correct, would correlate to more than $500 billion in spending. If China continues to robustly contain the virus, can accelerate its vaccine rollout, and heavily restrict outbound tourism, these numbers may well be attainable.