Hong Kong’s ditching of compulsory hotel quarantine reminds that travel still hasn’t returned to normal

Interior view of Hong Kong International Airport
Andrew Martin, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

LONDON – For most of us, the wide-scale scrapping of COVID-19 restrictions felt like a signal that travel had returned to normal.

The fact that 71% of Europeans expressed an intent to travel this past summer further cemented that perception. But in truth, travel and tourism are still some way from returning to pre-pandemic levels.

There were subtle reminders of this over the summer. The chaos at some of Europe’s largest airports, for example, provided a timely reminder of how much staffing power had been lost during the pandemic and how much of a struggle it would be to fully get back up to speed.

A more recent reminder, meanwhile, came in late September when Hong Kong announced that it was scrapping the compulsory 14-day hotel quarantine it had in place for all arrivals.

At the time, there were hopes that the milestone would signal a reopening of the border between the administrative and mainland China, but that hasn’t materialised.

It also brought further attention to the fact that China itself remains largely closed off thanks to its increasingly controversial Zero COVID Policy, something which has consequences for both travellers and the travel industry.

The missing masses

It would be difficult to overstate how big of an impact the de-facto absence of China as an international tourism force actually is. Prior to the pandemic, the UK alone could count on visits from more than one million Chinese tourists every year.

That’s a massive number to try and make up with travellers from other markets, especially with Brexit having ended free movement from Europe.

Of course, the UK isn’t alone in feeling this loss. France, which had more than 2 million visits from Chinese tourists pre-pandemic, has surely felt the impact of their absence even more. The same is true, to varying degrees, for the whole of Europe.

In fact, one 2020 estimate suggested that Europe faced a 10 billion Euro hole without the millions of Chinese tourists who holidayed there every year. Many Asian holiday destinations were also impacted by the missing Chinese tourists over the peak summer season.

Indeed, given that China accounted for more than a fifth of global tourists, there are likely few tourist destinations on the planet whose rebounds haven’t been affected by their continued absence. 

It’s not just the destinations that feel their absence either. Airlines, both international and domestic, have also been significantly impacted. With international travel only expected to reach 65% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year, they can’t not have been.

We should perhaps then view it as slightly remarkable that revenues are expected to reach 93.3% of 2019 levels and flights 86.9%.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that several other countries – including tourist hotspots such as Spain, Morocco, and Croatia – only recently lifted their remaining restrictions, further contributing to the loss of travellers throughout the year.            

Passing on the costs

Those missing tourists also impact the ability for airlines and other players to maximise their economies of scale. Coupled with rising fuel costs and inflation, this means that they have to pass on costs to their customers.

In the US, passengers are paying 25% more for flights than they were a year ago. As CNBC notes, that’s the largest jump since the Federal Reserve of St. Louis began tracking the index in 1989.

In the UK, meanwhile, summer flight prices to Europe’s most popular destinations were an average of 30% more expensive than pre-pandemic. While European prices are expected to plateau, they’ve still increased 48.5% this year.  

Things may improve in 2023, but it’s unlikely that travellers will see a return to the bargain-busting deals they may have been used to pre-pandemic any time soon.

Taking charge of your travel

In the face of those circumstances, it should hardly be surprising that travellers are looking for ways to save on flight costs wherever possible.

A growing number of frugal travellers are, for example, finding ways to travel without checked-in luggage in an attempt to avoid airline fees. Some have gotten so good at resisting airline upsells that they put out YouTube and TikTok tutorials that others can follow.

But carrying hand luggage and refusing to fork out for extra legroom aren’t the only ways to save on flights. Did you know, for example, that something as simple as where you’re booking from can impact the cost of your flight?

But it doesn’t have to. With this new website, you can get the best price, no matter where you’re browsing from.

And with flight prices unlikely to drop in 2023 (even if China does open up again), that’s a weapon every would-be traveller should have in their arsenal.

Article by Avi Raz Cohen, General Manager, Shoopit

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