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Ice and snow bring merriment and misery to Chinese tourists

Thursday, February 8, 2024

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Chinese New Year_Spring Festival

Ice and snow are bringing both merriment and misery to Chinese tourists as the country heads towards record-breaking numbers during the Spring Festival travel rush.

The “ice and snow” tourism trend, or “bing xue lu you” in Mandarin, has heated up this year, leading to a festive travel boom to winter destinations in the frozen north such as Harbin and XInjiang.

At the same time, freezing rain and blizzards are wreaking havoc in the central and east regions, disrupting already stretched transport services and stranding homebound travellers.

Known as the world’s largest annual migration, the Spring Festival travel rush is keenly watched as the travel patterns and numbers provide indications on the health of the Chinese economy.

Whether the recent visa-free arrangements China has either enacted unilaterally or mutually with around 10 countries in recent months are paying off in terms of boosting tourism.

The 40-day travel rush revolves around Chinese New Year (Feb 10).

This typically sees hundreds of millions of people travelling back to their hometowns to reunite with their loved ones and celebrate.

China’s Transport Ministry estimates a record nine billion domestic passenger trips to be made during this festive period, with self-driving road trips making up 80 per cent.

A record nine billion domestic passenger trips are expected during the 40-day period, running alongside a rebound in international travel.

The overall number is nearly double the 4.7 billion logged last year, when the zero-COVID policy had only recently been lifted.

Day one of the travel rush on Jan 26 already saw 189 million passenger trips being made, according to a report by state news outlet China Daily.

FREEZING RAIN AND BLIZZARDS


But extreme weather is casting a dark cloud over the peak travel season.

Heavy snowfall and freezing rain across parts of the country have grounded flights and halted trains, disrupting people’s plans.

Weather officials earlier warned that overall conditions were shaping up to be the “most complex” since 2008.

China’s National Meteorological Center issued four extreme weather warnings over the weekend, including warnings for strong wind, blizzards and dense fog.

Local media reported travellers were stranded due to flight cancellations and delays in several airports, including Wuhan, Hefei and Zhengzhou.

On Sunday (Feb 4), China Southern Airlines said it cancelled a total of 105 flights at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport due to heavy snowfall.

In a post on its official Weibo page, the airline apologised for the inconvenience caused to travellers, after several delayed flights were cancelled due to ice on the runway.

China’s national railway regulator said on Monday that it would increase transport capacity at areas and railway lines where weather conditions have improved.


The weather situation is forecast to improve from the middle of the week, according to local media reports.

WARMING UP TO “ICE AND SNOW” TOURISM


Even as much of China contends with ice and snow, a tourism trend of the same name has been proving especially popular this festive season.

Bookings for snow- and ice-related activities have jumped by more than 10 times, according to China travel portal in its annual Spring Festival travel forecast as reported by Sohu.

Cities in Northern China, such as Harbin, Changchun, Beijing and Urumqi, are among popular domestic destinations for local travellers.

According to a booking platform, there has been a sevenfold year-on-year increase in Chinese domestic bookings, with major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Harbin among the most popular destinations.

“Ice and snow” travel first gained national traction at the turn of last year, and analysts point out momentum for the trend remains entering the Chinese New Year holidays.

A case in point is Harbin in the northeast, dubbed China’s “ice city” where sub-zero temperatures are a way of life. It attracted a record number of visitors over the New Year holiday – many drawn by the ice sculptures of the city’s annual Ice and Snow Festival.


State news agency reported that 3.05 million tourists visited Harbin during the three-day holiday, generating 5.91 billion yuan (US$832 million) in tourism revenue.

These surpassed pre-pandemic levels, according to news source.

For the Chinese New Year holidays, Harbin is the most popular tourist destination, according to a report by an online travel platform.

Social media has been a key driver in the winter tourism boom, according to Chinese media, with short videos of Harbin winter’s scenery and the local hospitality going viral.

Chinese officials have also acknowledged the boom in winter tourism.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mr Wang Wenbin said it shows China’s growing tourism market demand and people’s spending power.

China’s consumption spree during holidays, festivals as well as the current winter travel boom have strongly boosted the global tourism market, and showed the country’s great economic vitality, Mr Wang was reported saying by local media.

SETTING SIGHTS ABROAD


Booking platforms are also seeing a surge in international searches from Chinese travellers for the upcoming holidays.

Ahead of the holidays, China relaxed visa rules to encourage more tourists and business travellers to visit the country, including the easing of transit rules and extensions of stay for foreign nationals.

China has also been expanding its visa-free policy. Among the latest moves – mutual 30-day visa-free entries with Singapore and Thailand, which come into effect in February and March respectively.

Acknowledging that improving visa policies is an important step.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said last week that it would continue to “upgrade measures” facilitating cross-border travel.

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