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With the economy gradually reopening in China as the coronavirus crisis subsides, Chinese travelers are beginning to take tentative steps out of their homes for vacations nearby — if the recent Qingming festival was any indication.

But travel business players in China are only too aware that a return to pre-crisis norm is not yet on the horizon, as people’s movement across the country still comes under significant restrictions.

Within China, it is not uncommon for tourist sites and attractions to reopen for business, only to close a couple of days later out of fear of another wave of infections. Patrons have to prove their health status through a government-sanctioned app before they can enter local restaurants and establishments.

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Meanwhile, China has temporarily suspended the entry of most foreigner nationals to guard against a second wave of infections from abroad. Large tour groups for both inbound and outbound travel are still currently banned by the central government, while travel agents are barred from running cross-province trips.

Against such a backdrop, Skift speaks to travel operators in China to find out how they are adjusting to a post-Covid norm and navigating their business out of the pandemic.

Looking Inward

With current entry restrictions effectively sealing off international tourism flows into China, overseas source markets have now dried up as a revenue stream—at least for the time being—for inbound travel operators in the country. In place, a number of them are turning their attention to the expats and local residents market.

Explore Beyond Founder Maxime Tondeur believes the virus situation will stoke domestic travel interest of foreign residents, who would otherwise holiday abroad but cannot due to current travel restrictions or quarantine requirements.

“Most foreigners I cater to have traveled little in China besides the must-see — e.g. Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors — and resolutely chose to travel to Southeast Asia because it’s cheaper and offers better service” he said.

“With that [Southeast Asia] option out of the equation for now, I predict more foreigners would then discover domestically instead, as I don’t see foreigners skipping on a holiday because they can’t go abroad anymore. In a way, the virus has knocked out competition from Southeast Asia,” he added.

How quickly travel demand will pick up for the expat market in China remains uncertain for now, but Shanghai-based Tondeur is hopeful that by May many of the restrictions in place would have loosened and local authorities would be more assured that the foreigners already in China are “safe” travelers.

Meanwhile, he is encouraged by the inquiries received for travel in China. Of the view that crowd-free destinations near China’s metropolitan cities are likely to receive stronger interest from travelers, Tondeur intends to promote Wuyuan, which lies about three hours from Shanghai by high-speed train. This county in the southeastern Jiangxi Province is famed for its ancient architecture and rustic scenery.

Travel In Situ

As the authorities have not given travel agencies the green light to operate on-the-ground tours in Beijing, Bespoke Travel Company founder Sarah Keenlyside has rolled out a series of programs that allow her customers to partake in local experiences to avoid flouting the rules.

“This crisis is really forcing us to be creative, and that is never a bad thing,” she remarked, especially as tourism companies in China have not received any state assistance or bailout unlike other countries like Japan, the US or Europe.

For instance, the Beijing-based boutique travel firm has launched a self-guided scavenger hunt that Keenlyside said was conceived with the aim of giving local residents “a bit of courage to get out” following weeks of home quarantine.

At Beijing’s Beihai Park, one of China’s largest and best-preserved ancient imperial gardens, players can learn about the history of the place through fun and self-isolated ways. “[Beihai Park] is not a bad place during spring, and hopefully it will be as invigorating as a beach visit,” she remarked.

The wake of Covid-19 has also prompted Bespoke Travel Company to unfurl its first efforts to attract Chinese customers. “We have translated the scavenger hunt into Chinese, so it’s our first attempt at targeting the domestic market.”

The Beijing-based travel firm has also developed a pub quiz for companies to conduct online team building activities via Zoom. As well, it has lined up a series of insider talks by experts and guides that will be broadcasted on Zoom, with topics ranging from Empress Dowager Cixi to tea appreciation and hand-pulled noodle classes.

“China is demonized by some quarters [overseas], so I hope through these sessions we can help people [outside of China] to understand this country better,” said Keenlyside. “Hopefully, we can go some way to overcome some of these misunderstandings.”

Answering Nature’s Call

Having been confined to their home residences for two months, Exo Travel China Managing Director Olivier Marchesin expects would-be travelers in China are now eager for fresh air and space as well as opportunities to reconnect with themselves and with nature.

The DMC has hence developed a special nature-themed program in Yangshuo, southern China’s Guangxi Province, which will take guests on a 20km walk along the picturesque Li River, followed by a foot massage and thematic dinner at an old family house.

This new program focuses on walking as Marchesin believes that the activity provides travelers with the most natural way of reconnecting with oneself while offering interaction opportunities with locals in villages hiked through.

Like Bespoke’s Keenlyside, Marchesin also believes the time is ripe for Exo Travel China to reach out to the domestic Chinese market, a departure from its earlier focus on travelers from Western source markets.

“Chinese travelers are increasingly mature and seeking out special experiences during their travels,” he shared. Programs are now also geared locals and expats in China, and Exo Travel has created a WeChat page to gain more followers.

Marchesin added, “We’re already in standby mode for recovery.”

Photo Credit: Rustic countryside in Wuyuan, a county in Jiangxi Province, China. Xiong Chaoyang / Explore Beyond