China Readies for World’s Biggest Human Migration

(Bloomberg) -- It brings much of China’s economy to a halt and strains transport systems, not to mention waistlines. Chinese New Year is an annual ritual of family reunification and overindulgence. The scale of the migration is astounding: While some 54 million Americans undertake a significant journey for Thanksgiving, Chinese citizens will rack up about 3 billion trips during this year’s travel-fest.

1. When exactly is Chinese New Year?

Also known as the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year marks the beginning of the lunar calendar. It’s China’s most important holiday, a period that’s seen enshrining values like unity and family ties. Citizens get a statutory seven-day holiday beginning Chinese New Year’s Eve, which falls on Feb. 4 this year. Traditionally, the celebrations span 16 days, from a family feast on New Year’s Eve through to the Lantern Festival on day 15.

2. Will China’s slowing economy curtail travel plans?

Not if official forecasts prove accurate. China’s railways expect to transport 413 million passengers, up 8.3 percent from last year, 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 Chinese New Year). Then there’s the some 73 million passengers who will take flights, up 12 percent from 2018. The government expects 2.99 billion journeys to take place over the holiday, an increase of 0.6 percent from the previous year, as migrant workers seize what can often be their only chance in the year to return home.

China Readies for World’s Biggest Human Migration

3. Do holiday-makers spend much of their time travelling?

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 on the rail system during peak travel seasons such as Spring Festival. A lot of the new lines set to begin construction and go into service in the next decade will be in western and central China. 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 travel plans changed much over the years?

Rising wealth has seen many Chinese flock to warmer climes for the holiday, which, despite its name, typically takes place during 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 expected to be the most popular overseas destinations, followed by Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. About 7 million Chinese will travel abroad during the seven-day holiday, more than the population of Denmark, according to an estimate from the China Tourism Academy and online travel agency International Ltd. One unknown: Whether the trade war with the U.S. will deter Chinese from traveling to family celebrations in North America.

5. Is reserving tickets a headache?

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. Chinese typically have to book their travel months in advance to avoid paying sometimes exorbitant prices closer to the holiday period.

6. Who else suffers with the travel operators?

Pity the economists. Because Chinese New Year moves around on the Gregorian calendar -- meaning it can start any time from late-January to mid-February -- the holiday 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.

7. What other businesses benefit?

Purveyors of alcohol -- particularly those that make baijiu, China’s celebratory spirit -- record bumper sales during the New Year. Luxury-good retailers, both at home and in countries such as South Korea and Hong Kong, count the holiday among their make-or-break seasons.

8. And this year’s animal sign?

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

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