China Will Rack Up Three Billion Trips During World’s Biggest Human Migration
Travelers walk through the main hall of the Hongqiao Railway Station in Shanghai on Jan. 18. (Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

China Will Rack Up Three Billion Trips During World’s Biggest Human Migration

(Bloomberg) -- It brings much of China’s economy to a halt and strains transport systems, not to mention waistlines. Lunar New Year is an annual ritual of family reunification and overindulgence. The scale of the migration is astounding: While an estimated 116 million Americans were on the move around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Chinese citizens will rack up about 3 billion trips during this year’s travel-fest. A widening outbreak of a virus that began in December has added some complications this year.

1. When exactly is Lunar New Year?

Also known as Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival, it marks the beginning of the lunar calendar and is China’s most important holiday, a period that’s seen as celebrating values like unity and family ties. People get a statutory seven days off beginning New Year’s Eve, which falls on Jan. 24 this year. (Many migrant workers seize what can often be their only chance in the year to return home.) Traditionally, the celebrations span 16 days, from a family feast on New Year’s Eve through to the Lantern Festival on day 15.

China Will Rack Up Three Billion Trips During World’s Biggest Human Migration

2. Are people curtailing travel plans?

Not if official forecasts prove accurate. China’s railways expect 440 million trips, up 8% from last year, to take place during the 40-day official travel season known as Chunyun. (That translates as “Spring Festival Transportation” and typically begins 15 days before the start of Lunar New Year; this year it’s Jan. 10-Feb. 18.) And some 79 million passengers will take flights, up more than 8% from 2019. There will be more than 17,000 flights a day on average, an increase of about 13% from 2019. The new Daxing airport in south Beijing is expected to handle 1.9 million trips. Because of the new SARS-like virus, airports are screening passengers arriving from Wuhan for signs of fever. The government put the city of 11 million in central China on lockdown Jan. 23, halting public transport and canceling flights.

China Will Rack Up Three Billion Trips During World’s Biggest Human Migration

3. Do people spend much time traveling?

Not so much now, as railway times shorten. China’s high-speed network is being extended at a rapid pace, amid a push into the country’s less developed west. Several new bullet-train lines slicing through mountains and rugged terrain in western China have cut trips to half or even a third of the time spent on regular trains. China Railway Corp., the country’s state railway operator, says new lines linking the east and west will help ease the strain during peak travel seasons. Another phenomenon: While the number of rural workers finding jobs in cities continues to rise, more of them are working closer to home. That’s because companies are shifting factories to the lower-cost central provinces from the expensive coastal regions.

4. Have destinations changed much?

Rising wealth has seen many Chinese flock to warmer climes for the holiday, which, despite its name, typically takes place in the winter. Popular destinations include the tropical resort island of Hainan, known as “China’s Hawaii,” and coastal cities like Xiamen. Thailand and Japan are popular overseas destinations, followed by Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. About 7 million Chinese traveled abroad during the seven-day holiday in 2019, more than the population of Denmark, according to an estimate from the China Tourism Academy and online travel agency International Ltd. Another unknown: Whether political and trade tensions with the U.S. will deter Chinese from traveling to family celebrations in North America.

5. Is reserving tickets a headache?

Chinese typically have to book their travel months in advance to avoid paying sometimes exorbitant prices. Technology has lessened the need to stand in long lines. But it can present its own problems for those without internet access or who struggle to prove they’re not a web robot, as Bloomberg reported back in 2016.

6. Who else suffers with the travel operators?

Pity the economists. Because the holiday moves around on the Gregorian calendar -- meaning it can start any time from late-January to mid-February -- it creates distortions in year-on-year comparisons of economic data. China’s central bank is also on high alert ahead of the festival as an onslaught of cash withdrawals can put pressure on liquidity. (People typically pass out red envelopes with yuan bills as gifts.)

7. What other businesses benefit?

Purveyors of alcohol -- particularly those that make baijiu, China’s celebratory spirit -- achieve bumper sales during the New Year. Luxury-goods retailers, both at home and in places such as South Korea and Hong Kong, count the holiday among their make-or-break seasons. Hong Kong, however, has seen a drastic drop in visitors from mainland China since pro-democracy protests began in mid-2019.

8. And this year’s animal sign?

Move aside pig, it’s the year of the rat.

The Reference Shelf

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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