Millions of domestic tourists are descending on China’s southernmost island province of Hainan.
Known as the “Hawaii of China,” the island has been free of the coronavirus for six months, drawing eager shoppers to duty-free malls, couples seeking a sub-tropical backdrop for wedding pictures.
October arrivals of 9.6 million, according to official data, exceeded the year-earlier figure, before the pandemic struck, by 3.1 percent, although foreign visitors slumped 87 percent. That was a far cry from February, when arrivals had dropped almost 90 percent.
The rapid surge in tourism shows China’s consumer sector may be throwing off its virus-induced slumber as the closure of many international borders pushes travelers to destinations such as Hainan, traditionally costlier than most of Southeast Asia.
Tourism spending got a leg up after a new duty-free spending cap of 100,000 yuan (US$15,186) took effect in July, up from 30,000 yuan.
Hainan raked in 12 billion yuan in such sales in the following four months, to stand up 214.1 percent on the year, or almost on par with 2019 sales of 13.61 billion.
Tourists racing through the Haitang Bay Duty Free Shopping Center in the island’s city of Sanya were astonished at the queues outside the boutiques of luxury brands from Chanel to Gucci, with some likening the scene to a yard sale.
“This is crazy — we did not expect so many people,” said a visitor from the southwestern city of Chengdu, who gave her name only as Xie.
But she was willing to queue for more than 30 minutes in the 1.1 million-square-meter mall just to enter a Gucci store.
“Seriously, is Gucci that cheap? With this many people in line, I would’ve thought it’s free,” said the 32-year-old.
A 53-year-old woman surnamed Liu who used to visit Thailand or Malaysia at this time of year said Sanya had been a good substitute. She paid more than 14,000 yuan for a Gucci handbag.
“Such a steal!” said the native of Chongqing, another southwestern city. “We already bought cosmetics in Haikou and we’re here for the bags,” she added, referring to the island’s capital.
As the “stay-home” economy grew in China because of the global pandemic, Morgan Stanley estimates “reshored consumption” could reach up to US$165 billion this year.
Although the 46 million visitors Hainan received from January to October were well below the 2019 figure of 83 million domestic and foreign tourists, Chinese travelers are set to extend the tourism boom into the winter.
The average daily rate of bookings in Sanya soared 43 percent in November from a year earlier to US$151, and jumped 51 percent to US$190 for December.
The number of properties with at least one night booked rose 7 percent in November and the figure for December had already reached 85 percent of the year-earlier level.
On a beach stretch studded with five-star hotels along Yalong Bay, dozens of newly-weds prepared for elaborate wedding shoots.
The pandemic thwarted the plans of Xia Weini, 30, and her 28-year old husband Wang Yu, natives of far northwestern Xinjiang, to visit the Thai resort island of Phuket to pose for their photos.
“Xinjiang is probably the most landlocked place in China, so we’ve always wanted to get married near the sea,” said Xia.
They ended up spending more than 10,000 yuan in Sanya for the pictures instead.