Although Spanish officials are thrilled about major Chinese carriers boosting service to the country, they're not simply relying on that increase in their quest to attract visitors from of one of its major markets.
Chinese airlines have upped the number of weekly flights to Spain by more than five times since the end of China’s zero-COVID policy in December, filling most of the gap left by European rivals due to a ban on flying over Russia.
“We’ve managed to restore 60% of the direct connections (with China) we had before the pandemic, and we hope to increase this figure by year-end and close the gap next year,” Miguel Sanz, general director of Spain’s tourism board Turespana, told Reuters.
Air China, China Eastern Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Hainan Airlines have in the past four months launched a total of 16 weekly flights to Madrid and Barcelona from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Chongqing, according to Turespana.
In late 2022, Chinese airlines operated only three flights.
Shenzhen Airlines is preparing to launch three flights to Barcelona, and another airline Sanz would not identify is considering connecting a Chinese city with southern Spain.
Airlines, including European ones, used to operate 30 weekly flights during the high season between China and Spain before the pandemic. Spain received 700,000 Chinese visitors in 2019. This year’s numbers are not yet available.
Unable to fly through Russian airspace because of the war in Ukraine, IAG’s Spanish unit Iberia has not resumed its Shanghai connection as alternative routes are too costly.
Spain is one of the world’s most-visited countries with mass-tourism destinations on its Mediterranean coast. The capital city, Madrid, underwent a facelift during the pandemic as part of a plan to attract five-star hotels and high-spending tourists.
Seeing an opportunity to diversify connections, Turespana moved quickly to attract Chinese carriers back to Spain as soon as Beijing dropped its tough travel restrictions.
Sanz said he was the first Western tourism official to visit China earlier this year to promote that plan with authorities, tour operators and airlines.
Sanz, who also chairs the European Travel Commission, pointed to similar levels of pent-up demand for travel in China as in Europe or America. Spain is strengthening consular services in China to make visa approval swifter, he added.
(Reporting by Corina Pons with additional reporting by Sophie Yu in Beijing; editing by Inti Landauro, Andrei Khalip and Mark Potter)
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Photo credit: Chinese carriers - like Hainan Airlines - are upping flights to Spain. Tomás Del Coro / Wikimedia Commons