Covid-19 has done significant damage to the global economy. The tourism sector has been hit particularly hard.

A report from the China Hospitality Association shows that 74% of hotels and homestays chose to close. In the first two months of 2020, the industry lost more than RMB 67 billion (around $10 billion), with rental apartment losses (in Chinese) of around RMB 700 million. For health reasons, many countries have restricted entry and closed their borders to tourists. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, in April, there were no foreign tourists visiting Thailand, and their number decreased by 10.02 million from January to May.

In China, Covid-19 came at a critical tourism period—the Spring Festival holiday. People chose to stay home and canceled all their travel plans. Various sights also closed in response to government regulations.  

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Ashley Galina Dudarenok is the founder of Alarice and a renowned China marketing expert.

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However, no one could afford to sit on their hands and everyone went looking for opportunities and alternatives. Tourists, hotels, and others used modern technology to experience tourism in new ways.

Creating online lifelines

The Dunhuang Research Institute worked with Tencent to launch the “Yunyou Dunhuang” WeChat mini program. It not only presents the murals of the Dunhuang Grottoes but also makes virtual ones that users can interact with and create together.

Users can explore the murals close up in a way they can’t with the real objects. Since it was released on Feb. 20, more than 3.5 million people have used the mini program. It was updated in April and launched an animation series based on the wall paintings in the Mogao Grottoes. The animation maximizes the artistic characteristics, image texture, and light color of the murals.

This combination of modern technology and ancient culture triggered a huge social change and is representative of online cultural tours and interactive exhibitions that emerged in 2020.

Existing resources, new services

In Shanghai, some hotels provided food takeaway services to nearby businesses and China’s famous express hotel chain, Huazhu, created isolation rooms and services for migrant workers who didn’t have adequate accommodation (in Chinese).

Now, with China’s domestic Covid situation under control, managers from different hotels have started to hold livestreams on travel apps to promote their hotels and hand out discounts to potential customers.  

Since February, Alibaba Group’s travel site Fliggy has launched 28,000 livestreams, with more than 250 million viewers. Customers love this as it cuts down on their research time and makes it easy to find deals.

On June 5, the White Swan Hotel, the first five-star hotel in China, held a livestream on Fliggy. It’s the first high-end hotel to host a livestream on an Alibaba platform. As the hotel features a three Michelin star restaurant that serves traditional Cantonese food, it featured its high-end food in the livestream. In the end, 1.7 million people watched for more than three hours, the hotel’s followers increased by over 3,200, and it received a booking every three seconds (in Chinese).

Big sales

In addition to livestreaming, some hotels used social media platforms to interact with internet users. Aside from other deals and discounts, luxury hotel group Shangri-la launched a lucky draw on Weibo to engage with previous customers. Participants needed to post photos of green plants outside any windows of Shangri-la hotels. The winners were eligible for vouchers and bags. 

People in China who’ve been at home for a long time are now starting to make travel plans. China’s Ministry of Culture And Tourism estimates the total number of domestic tourists between May 1 and 4 was 104 million, and domestic tourism revenue (in Chinese) reached approximately RMB 43.23 billion. It seems that spring is coming.

We’ve seen similar trends among big tourist destinations in the West that have been hit hard by travel restrictions and have been forced to reimagine themselves. A number of high-profile museums in the West opened up their collections to a wide online audience for free during lockdowns. The Getty Museum launched a famous online photography challenge, in which people all over the world participated to recreate famous artworks with only the items they had at home. There was a tremendous release of online creativity during the early stages of quarantine measures.

Recovery

On June 11, after 56 days of no local transmissions and as control measures began to loosen, Beijing had another outbreak. As a result, the city locked down again, and lots of flights were canceled. A similar situation occurred in Jilin not long ago. The local government blocked travel to and from the city since May 13th. However, these incidents haven’t affected people’s willingness to travel.

According to Fliggy, travel was up during the Dragon Boat Festival in June with the overall number of tourists returning to 60% of last year’s numbers. Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei have returned to (in Chinese) about 40% of last year’s levels.

So China’s tourism industry is gradually recovering despite strong Covid measures. With policy support from local governments and creative promotion, domestic tourism will spring back soon. However, international tourism will take longer and people will likely never travel the same way internationally again. 

Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky has said that he believes travel will never be the same. He foresees people in the West limiting their travel to a 200 mile range from home, heading to nature spots and small centres. He believes the days of visiting big destinations like London, Rome, and Paris—and posing for photos in front of famous landmarks—is over. 

Some of these trends are already playing out in China as destinations like Huzhou’s Giraffe Hotel, which mimics a safari experience in Africa, with real giraffes roaming the grounds, pop up. It brings to mind a former time in China, when famous foreign sites were created within its borders for travellers who would never have the chance to see them in real life. 

The chance will come again, but fewer will want to take it up than before Covid-19 entered our lives.

Ashley Dudarenok

Ashley Galina Dudarenok is the founder of Alarice and a renowned China marketing expert. She is also the LinkedIn Top Voice in Marketing in 2019, Asia-Pacific's Top 25 Innovator, 3-time Amazon bestselling...