Tailspin: China’s Travel Crisis


The opening of China has been instantaneous. Chinese are free to travel anywhere in their
own country and anywhere in the world they can get a visa. Americans can apply for new 10-year multiple-entry visas to China, but good luck finding a flight into or out of China.

The international airlines are caught with their long-haul jets in use elsewhere, or mothballed by the waves of Covid. There is still only one Delta flight a day from Seattle to Beijing or Shanghai, and that flight goes to Inchon, South Korea where connecting flights take the traveler into China. Fares are no longer through the roof (once as much as $20,000 if you could find a seat). That’s down to $2,000 with seats available. Airlines who have the Seattle-China routes including non-stop service to Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen. Guangzhou,and Chengdu will likely be added, they all expect to be flying full
schedules, some with multiple flights per day, come March/April.

China has been experiencing growing waves of domestic travel as Covid strictures are tightened in the Middle Kingdom. One aspect of the pandemic that has been less
dramatically reported in China is the fact that the worst of the infections have been in the
urban areas. Many Westerners followed the trials of Shanghai citizens who were locked in
their apartments for weeks on end.

What tended to get lost in the reporting is that because of the strict lockdowns in urban areas, there are many parts of rural China that were less or little affected by Covid. This also helps explain why there were no nationwide protests against the Party and Xi Jinping. Those rural areas are the ones now experiencing waves of infections as domestic travel is back on. But the lid is definitely off.

All the more so because, while The Chinese New Year of the Rabbit is technically January 22 (earlier than usual), the new year travel season has begun in China. This past Wednesday was day 8. This week, on a daily basis 42 million Chinese were in trains,
planes, buses, and automobiles. That’s a 57% increase since 2022 during the relative and
absolute lockdown period. Travel agencies report a 400% increase in searches for travel
information and bookings.

But good luck finding a seat on the vast high speed rail network that now covers most of the country. Estimates are that at least 220 million Chinese (still only 1/6 of the population) will travel this New Year holiday season. The New Year holiday is nominally seven days
long, but many companies offer 15-day vacations to employees who may travel from one end of the country to another to be home with their families. Migrant workers with increases in pay are now able to take advantage of the high-speed rail system in many cases. Some also fly. At the lower end of the travel scale, sleeper buses provide travel that is measured in days and not hours. But those sleeper busses have come up in the world as well.

The recent announcement here in the Northwest that Amtrak is adding 4 daily services to the Cascade run from Portland to Vancouver BC for the coming summer, and a second daily run immediately is welcome to travelers of that scenic route, albeit the slow times for these trips: The 314 miles between Portland and Vancouver BC takes six hours.

By contrast, Beijing to Shanghai that used to be a 12-hour train ride for the 655 miles with four trains a day is now the showpiece of the high-speed rail network: 5 hours with trains during this holiday period running every 5 minutes from early morning through the night. That means 220,000 riders a day are expected.

The international travel by Chinese will be felt like a tsunami this spring when capacity meets demand. The domestic flight system in China is running at 80-90% load levels. (Much the same is true in the US.) However, bringing mothballed airliners back into service is not a push-button operation. Finding the pilots and crews to man those planes is already a challenge for most carriers. The recent meltdown of Southwest Airlines travel schedule underlines the challenge that all airlines will face when they try to accommodate surging demand. Adding millions of Chinese to the international air travel networks worldwide is an airport and air terminal nightmare in waiting.

On the good news/bad news side, the traffic jams of container and other shipping that
created the disruption of supply chains has eased in all cases and even disappeared in many cases. There is no longer a backlog of ships waiting to enter the combined Tacoma/Seattle ports. On many days, you can drive by Seattle’s downtown port and see empty quays and idle cranes. Long Beach, the largest of the West Coast ports, is now in normal operation without delays. Containers now ship at bargain rates. The question is: will the possible recession leave enough demand to fulfill the sudden surplus of capacity?

The normalized situation has created overcapacity. Container freight rates have dropped 14% worldwide November 2021 to November 2022. Air freight has hit a virtual wall. Air freight companies added 300 aircraft to their fleets during the pandemic waves. Boeing has 187 orders for new air freight models that are built in Everett on its books, and the aerospace giant remains the biggest beneficiary of the Covid boom in air freight, since Boeing models dominate the market. The 767, a 43-year-old design, is still in production. The former queen of the skies 747 no longer carries passengers, but stored models were pulled back into service and there are still four of the 747-8 freighter models on order.

Premium freight by air is among the first signs of capacity returning to normal. However, there is a backlog of orders for 777 freighters that is not likely to change as that model is considered the next air freight industry leader. It carries as much cargo as the old 747s but with two instead of four engines and even longer range.

Covid threw the travels of people and goods into a tailspin. For China with the
world’s largest middle class covid was like turning out a light. From millions of annual travelers, the leisure market spiraled down to nothing. The disruption in seaborne container traffic shipping caused disruptions in supply chains that are still being felt.

Peter Herford
Peter Herford
The Seattle-based author has many years of experience in national broadcast news, including years teaching journalism in mainland China.


  1. Let’s see. This region has tied itself to tech, and to China, both of which are wobbling. And we have tied ourselves to being a world-wide node in trade and travel. What’s wrong with this picture?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.