‘Revenge Spending’ Hits China as Millions Travel Again
Over the extended Labor Day weekend, around 90 million people are taking trips as the world watches to see what happens after a country reopens.
For most of spring, many millions in China were cooped up at home. Checking the latest stats related to COVID-19 became an obsession. In just one season, the country’s pace of life changed in fundamental ways that few foresaw. Now, while most of the world outside is in lockdown, people are moving around China again, but the experience feels off-kilter, giving a taste of what it will be like when borders reopen around the world. For those who are stuck at home, or have chosen to keep their distance from the throngs, China’s Labor Day weekend feels like a giant experiment in whether the pandemic could truly be consigned to the past.
A slew of polls conducted online, including one run by the China Academy of Social Sciences’ Tourism Research Center, showed us that Wuhan is one of the top two desired destinations of Chinese travelers. It isn’t hard to see why. Wuhan has layers of history and there’s plenty to see. The food is great, especially at the many noodle stalls that serve fast and filling morning meals. And at night, one of the strongest punk scenes in East Asia, one that was seeded in Wuhan two decades ago, comes alive. Head to one of the livehouses on any night, and you’ll find skinny, sometimes geeky-looking guitarists grinding out crunchy chords, drummers assaulting their kits with rebellious passion, and even loud, aggressive vocalists hurling themselves off cramped stages and onto tides of sweaty, tattooed limbs.
Even though the lockdown in Wuhan has been lifted, some of those experiences are on hold and may not be revived any time soon. For now, breathing the same air in dense spaces simply isn’t an option.
Even so, around China more than 4,000 major tourist sites are open to visitors during the Labor Day holiday that lasts until May 5. Popular spots like national parks as well as sections of the Great Wall sold out their tickets well before the first day of the month. Many are enforcing QR-code health checks—made available through apps that people are required to have on their phones—and requiring visitors to reserve time slots for entry. These rules are in place because popular locales were slammed in early April, when some regions in the country eased their lockdown policies.
In all, around 90 million people are taking trips in China over the break, but many are staying close to home in case emergencies arise. The China Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued several guidelines for people who are taking trips within the country. The elderly, people with chronic medical conditions, and pregnant women are advised to avoid travel altogether. Social distancing is practiced universally, and people are urged to hold onto their ticket stubs to expedite contact tracing if needed.
Whether it is a good idea, or even acceptable, to travel divides people in China right now. While the central government and local officials are giving the green light for restaurants, hotels, tourist sites, and businesses to reopen—while limiting capacity to about 50 percent in most places—many wonder whether asymptomatic people who carry the coronavirus may bring about a new wave of infections.
When the city government of Beijing lowered its health emergency status on the last day of April, waiving the requirement of two weeks of isolation for arrivals from low-risk areas, flight bookings departing the Chinese capital surged fifteenfold within half an hour. A friend who lives in Beijing, ever cautious, told me that he had a panic attack when he had a vision of the coronavirus landing all over the country; he said it was a hasty move by some people to satisfy the craving to be anywhere else. And once the holiday started, cars from other parts of the country started pouring into the capital too, stretching beyond the capital’s outskirts while police and health officials conducted inspections at checkpoints.
These trips hardly make up for plans that were canceled when different parts of China were locked down earlier in the year. While the outbreak was still unfolding, China’s tourism and hospitality sector was bleeding 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) a day, according to Analysys, a consultancy firm based in Beijing. The May Day holiday consumption from this week is part of what the Chinese call “revenge spending,” but it’s still conservative compared to normal levels.
Chinese state media is painting a picture of things nearly being back to normal in Wuhan and across the country. From a distance, that may seem true—people are, at least, out and about. But they are masked, and careful about who they approach and where they go. Occasionally, you’ll still spot extremely cautious individuals wearing full-body Tyvek suits. Purchases and food deliveries are often handed over like the two sides are conducting a hostage exchange.
It’s as if our social encounters contain latent hostility—not in the people we meet, but in the settings where this all takes place.
It is difficult to articulate what has been lost because of the pandemic. For many people in Wuhan, there is an unshakeable tug of nostalgia for a city that they never left and for 11 weeks could not leave.
Wuhan’s transportation bureau estimates that 333,500 passengers will enter and leave the city in the first five days of May. That’s less than half the normal count, but officials expect a rapid uptick as summer approaches. The official precautionary measures and private hesitation in China are a glimpse of what travel will look like when lockdowns are lifted around the world—constant health checks, necessary discretion in public areas, and anxieties stemming from expectations of the next wave of infections, even though we don’t know when or how it will hit.
COVID-19 may fundamentally change the way we travel. Depending on your location, you might need to have your temperature measured and logged when you arrive at an airport or train station, or before you enter some premises. The cabin crew on your next flight might be wearing goggles and latex gloves. Even the seating arrangements on trains, buses, and planes may be redesigned. And when we reach our destinations, there could be additional limitations. These are holes punched through the experience of seeing new places—at least, before the lockdowns kick in again.
For now, there are untainted azure skies in many parts of China. During the nationwide shutdowns of business and industry, the air cleared up. But one question lingers under the picture-perfect firmament many miles from home: When will we start to get sick again?