China gears up to ring in Year of the Dragon with expected record 9 billion trips

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Travel across China ramped up in recent days as millions boarded trains and planes and braved heavily trafficked roads in what officials have estimated will be a record 9 billion trips surrounding the Lunar New Year on Saturday.

Train stations, airports and highways were packed with travelers carting suitcases, provisions and gifts for family members in recent days as the weeks-long “chunyun” or Spring Festival travel rush period, which began late last month, got into full swing.

Much of the “chunyun” travel sees workers leaving China’s prosperous large cities and returning to hometowns across smaller cities, towns and rural areas to celebrate with family and friends during an eight-day public holiday, which many extend.

For many, this year – the Year of the Dragon according to the Chinese zodiac calendar – marks the return of normal travel for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

China’s stringent coronavirus controls limited the movement of people across the country since 2020. Last year’s holiday took place just weeks after those measures were lifted, only to coincide with a wave of infections that complicated travel.

This year, travelers were determined to make it back to see loved ones, even as blizzards and freezing rains across parts of eastern and central China earlier this week decimated flight and train schedules and left motorists stranded for hours on snowy highways.

Travel was expected to see a significant uptick this year. Authorities last month forecast that China’s population of 1.4 billion would take a record 9 billion trips during the 40-day holiday travel period, which began on January 26.

Preliminary data released this week suggested that boom was in full swing.

On Tuesday, three days ahead of Lunar New Year’s Eve, when families typically gather for a customary reunion meal, travelers made 2.2 million air trips and 12.9 million journeys by rail, according to official data.

Both marked a significant rise from pre-pandemic travel – with flights up 17% and train rides up 23% from the comparable travel date in 2019, transport authorities said. More than 232 million trips were made that day overall, with similar figures recorded Wednesday and Thursday.

Local data also showed a jump. On Friday, Shanghai’s major railway stations were expected to handle some 475,000 passengers – a more than 61% increase on 2019, according to the Shanghai-based state media outlet The Paper.

Domestic flight volumes during the first week of the travel rush were up roughly 15% over the same period in 2019, the outlet also reported, citing a civil aviation publication.

Robust travel could lend itself to “more buoyant consumption demand during the holidays,” HSBC economists said in a Thursday note.

But the country is also celebrating the holiday amid growing uncertainty about the future of the economy, which has been rattled by a property market crisis, stock market meltdown, weaker exports and high youth unemployment over the past year.

Turmoil in the stock market cast a shadow over the weeks leading up to the holiday. Two major indexes recorded their worst drops in years capping off a dire 2023 that saw China’s stock markets become the world’s worst performer.

The government has been scrambling to revive public and investor confidence.

Beijing fired its main stock market regulator Wednesday as anger grew over trillions wiped off shares in recent years, with desperate investors even flocking to the page of the United States Embassy in Beijing on Chinese social media platform Weibo earlier this month to vent their frustration and concern about what’s to come.

Ahead of the holiday, China’s major state media publications highlighted a speech delivered by leader Xi Jinping during a political meeting Thursday, where he called for “Chinese people” to “forge ahead” in the Lunar New Year.

“As long as we persist on our path, hold onto our will, remain consistent and join forces together, we can overcome all adversities and obstacles, and continue to move towards success,” Xi said, according to state media.

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