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Millions take to China’s railways, roads, air in 1st big autumn holiday since end of zero-COVID

HONG KONG (AP) — Many millions of Chinese tourists are expected to travel within their country, splurging on hotels, tours, attractions and meals in a boost to the economy during the 8-day autumn holiday period that began Friday.

This year’s holiday began with the Mid-Autumn Festival on Friday and also includes the Oct. 1 National Day. The public holidays end on Oct. 6.

Typically hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and overseas during such holidays. The eight-day-long holiday is the longest week of public holidays since COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted in December. Outbound tourism has lagged domestic travel, with flight capacities lagging behind pre-pandemic levels.

Big cities like the capital, Beijing, Shanghai, and southern cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou are favored destinations. Smaller cities, such as Chengdu and Chongqing in southwest China also are popular.

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All that travel is a boon for the world’s No. 2 economy: During the week-long May holiday this year, 274 million tourists spent 148 billion yuan ($20.3 billion).

“Over the last few years with the pandemic, there’s been really strong pent-up demand,” said Boon Sian Chai, managing director at the online travel booking platform Trip.com Group. Both domestic and outbound travel have “recovered significantly,” but travel within China accounted for nearly three-quarters of total bookings, Chai said.

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China Railway said it was expecting about 190 million passenger trips during the Sept. 27-Oct. 8 travel rush, more than double the number of trips last year and an increase from 2019, before the pandemic started.

In Guangzhou and Shenzhen, extra overnight high-speed trains will operate for 11 days to cope with a travel surge during the long holiday, according to the China Railway Guangzhou Group Co., Ltd.

Another 21 million passengers are expected to travel by air during the holiday, with an average of about 17,000 flights per day, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China. More than 80% of those flights are domestic routes.

Jia Jianqiang, CEO of Liurenyou International Travel Agency, said Chinese are splurging on more luxurious travel.

“Many people are now also inclined towards more customized, high-end tours compared to the large group tours that were popular (before the pandemic),” Jia said.

For many Chinese, long public holidays such as Golden Week are the best time to travel, since paid vacation can be as few as five days a year.

“Most Chinese don’t have long holidays, so this time of the year is when everyone can take the longest break and the only time to travel for fun,” said Fu Zhengshuai, an IT engineer and photography enthusiast who often travels alone to remote areas in China such as far western Qinghai and Xinjiang.

The downside of traveling during such big holidays is that everyone else is out there, too, and prices of tickets to attractions, food, and accommodations are high, Fu said.

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For student Ma Yongle, traveling during big holidays means long waiting times, huge crowds, and heavy traffic. Train tickets often are sold out.

“I saw more people than scenery. I spent longer time waiting than eating. Train tickets were sold out quickly and traffic was heavy,”Ma said. “More time was wasted and little was left for enjoying the scenery, which spoiled my mood.”

She has since adopted what is referred in China as a “special forces travel trend” where tourists don’t stay overnight at a destination, but only take day trips to save money.

A growing but still relatively small number of Chinese are venturing abroad. According to Trip.com data, outbound travel orders this year are nearly 20 times those during last year’s autumn holidays, when many pandemic restrictions were still in place. Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia are popular destinations, as are more distant places such as Australia and the United Kingdom.

Overseas travel is bound to bounce back, Chai said.

“If you look at flight capacity, it has only recovered to about half of pre-pandemic levels,” he said. “As flight capacity starts to pick up toward the end of this year and next year, outbound travel will continue to increase.”

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Associated Press video producers Olivia Zhang and Wayne Zhang in Beijing contributed to this report.