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The peak air travel season in China is fading as COVID cases rise

Beijing: Iphie Nie, a 30-year-old Beijing-based designer who usually travels to visit family in her hometown of Shenzhen during the Lunar New Year, like many Chinese, reluctantly decided not to book a flight during the mid-February vacation.

To limit the spread of Covid-19, the government has discouraged travel usually at the busiest time of the year. Those who go anyway must present a DNA test with negative results taken in the seven days before returning home.

As a result, airline bookings made as of January 19 for Lunar New Year travel fell 73.7% compared to the holiday period in 2019, according to data from travel analytics firm ForwardKeys provided to Reuters. ForwardKeys did not provide the 2020 data, saying the early days of the Covid outbreak skewed the numbers.

Bookings are down 57.3% from 2019 as of January 1, with the situation deteriorating due to the outbreak leading to tightening restrictions.

“Even though I am in a low-risk area, people in my hometown will get a little nervous when they hear that I just got back from Beijing. It’s a very big problem,” Ni said.

Beijing has reported new Covid-19 cases for 11 days in a row and countrywide case numbers, albeit small by the standards of most Western countries, are at their highest in 10 months.

State media reported that many employees working for state-owned companies or government agencies have been advised not to travel without management approval.

Some people who have already bought airline tickets are considering canceling.

“I’ve already booked a ticket but I haven’t made up my mind yet,” said Cathy Key, a 29-year-old Beijing office worker from Henan.

The China Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC) said Tuesday that passengers who bought flight tickets scheduled from January 28 to March 8 are entitled to a full refund, as the government looks to reduce population flows during the Lunar New Year.

A report by aviation data provider Variflight predicts 6 million flights cut during the Lunar New Year as a result of Covid testing requirements and home quarantine rules, with about 50% of passengers likely to be canceled.

Ticket prices, which are usually at their peak during the Lunar New Year, have fallen. As of January 25, the average airline tickets sold on Qunar.com, a Beijing-based online travel platform, were 651.36 yuan (US $ 100) during the holiday, the lowest level in five years, the company said Monday.

In China, domestic airline capacity had recovered to 2019 levels by the end of last year when there were almost no cases, although ticket prices remained low.

Luya You, a transportation analyst at Bocom International, said the full recovery of Chinese airlines’ revenue to pre-crisis levels will be delayed to the second or third quarter of this year, compared to its previous assessment of January or February.

ForwardKeys said travelers booked tickets later than usual, with 61% of Chinese people doing so within four days of departing in March to December 2020, up from 52% in 2019.

“This is the only statistic that gives some hope for travel in the Chinese New Year, as a rush in last-minute bookings is a sure possibility if the latest outbreak is brought under control soon,” said David Tarch, a spokesman for ForwardKeys.

However, designer Ni said she was very concerned about the possibility of over-booking a last-minute return home ticket.

“What if I need to be isolated at home for 14 days upon my return?” “I only have 10 days off vacation,” she said.

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