How China finally bounced back after the pandemic

“How China finally bounced back after the pandemic” was originally published on 1 July 2024 on

With a surge in demand seeing new holiday itineraries abound, the Middle Kingdom is now firmly back on the travel map.

The pandemic impacted tourism around the world, but possibly nowhere more than in China. By 2022, direct airline seat capacity from the country to the UK was down 97 per cent on pre-pandemic levels according to data from Visit Britain. The country remained effectively closed to foreign travellers until spring 2023, when it began reissuing visas to tourists.

Even after Covid restrictions were lifted, international visitors stayed away. “People in north and western countries see China differently post-pandemic,” says Prof Sam Huang, who heads the SBL Centre for Tourism Research at Australia’s Edith Cowan University. “According to some global surveys, they now have a negative image of China – that may be one issue at play”.

Take the train up onto the Tibetan plateau on our Tibetan Railroad tour

As memories of Covid lockdowns become hazier however, interest in the country appears to be returning. International visitors roughly tripled year-on-year in the first quarter of 2024, thanks in part to a 15-day visa waiver scheme for tourists from 14 countries (though not those from the UK) scheduled to last until at least the end of November 2024. Meanwhile, British tourists no longer have to give fingerprints in order to get a visa for mainland China, though this is subject to review at the end of the year. “The Chinese government is doing its best to attract foreign visitors to its country,” says Huang. “I sense some optimism.”

There’s a similar mood amongst tour operators. “Demand levels for us right now are more than quadruple what they were last year, which is taking us back to the level where we were in 2019,” says Peter Crane, global product director at Wendy Wu Tours

The company is introducing new itineraries to tie in with increased interest, including a Tibetan Railroad trip with time on the world’s highest railway, trundling up to 5,072 metres in carriages pumped with oxygen as the dramatic landscapes of the Tibetan Plateau reveal themselves outside. Two other new journeys include time in Zhangjiajie, a landscape of soaring rock formations topped with forests which featured in the film Avatar

“It’s an extraordinary place – hundreds and hundreds of these dramatic sandstone blocks that rise up from the jungle, topped by more jungle. The infrastructure that the Chinese have built around there is really impressive. Not everybody will love it but there are glass bridges where you can walk across a 1,000-metre-high canyon. There’s a glass platform that you can walk around the edge of the cliff and a glass elevator which is the world’s highest and fastest outdoor one,” says Crane.

Building on an increased network of high-speed train services, the company has also dispensed with flights for journeys of two hours or less, in favour of rail travel. “The way the infrastructure has moved on in the last few years is unbelievable to witness,” notes Crane. “The train stations are as big and futuristic as airport terminals and there are 20,000 kilometres of bullet train tracks.”  

Among other operators to have launched new trips is Viking, which will run three ocean voyages in the country on its ship the Viking Yi Dun, from September 2024. This ship is the first focused on domestic sailings in China for international travellers, and its voyages are proving so popular that the company has already launched a Mongolia add-on so customers can lengthen stays in the region.

The otherwordly landscapes of Zhangjiajie feature on two new tours to China

And it’s not just operators backing tourism in China. Big hotel chains are opening outposts too. IHG, the group behind the Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and Indigo brands amongst others, has rapidly expanded its offering in the country over recent years, opening 600 hotels in the space of 15 years – 100 of them within the last 18 months.

China may have taken its sweet time to reopen itself to the outside world – and international visitors may likewise have taken their time to return – but it seems that slowly, as old air routes reopen and logistical problems ease, the appeal of the holiday to China is firmly back on the table.

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