Jess Dunderdale is head of client partnerships at corporate housing specialist AltoVita
The majority of corporates expect their travel volumes to have reached pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023, according to one recent survey, but a separate study earlier this year revealed contrasting views on the last international market to reopen to the world – China.
Amidst a backdrop of surveys and research pointing to regenerative investment and growth, the results of a GBTA survey presented a mixed message on the issue of travel to and from mainland China. According to the survey, conducted in January, just under a quarter (24 per cent) of US travel buyers typically allowed employees to travel to China, while, at the time, 57 per cent either did not allow it or recommended against it.
Yet when China reopened its doors to business travellers on 8 January, it sparked an immediate revival. We appear to be navigating an environment of conflicting variables that suggests both predicted increases in business travel and limitations to this growth.
The ensuing few days after the country reopened saw international arrival and departure numbers increase by 50 per cent compared with the days immediately before policies restricting travel were lifted. According to travel management company CWT, China's top inbound markets for bookings at that time included the United States, Germany and the UK. But while this indicated an initial desire to get back to business stays in the country, the number of arrivals was still 75 per cent down on the same period in 2019.
By the end of March, despite a surge in cabin crew applications and with China’s domestic flight capacity just surpassing levels from March 2019, international air seat capacity had recovered to just 30 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, seat capacity between Europe and China this May remains 56 per cent down on the same month in 2019, according to aviation analytics specialist Cirium. All this suggests that international travel is rising, but only gradually.
Looking at travel in the reverse direction, a recent BTN Europe article noted that Chinese travellers represent the highest-spending outbound market in the world.
While China’s re-emergence from its prolonged period of closure could see a welcome boom in business travel across the APAC region in particular, other regions may benefit less.
Insight from the European Travel Commission and Tourism Economics suggests travel between China and Europe is lagging behind other long-haul markets, with volumes only likely to reach 60 to 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels this year, and with full recovery not expected until 2026. By comparison, travel between Europe and the United States is forecast to hit 80 per cent of 2019 levels this year.
The recovery of business travel between Europe and China might be proving slower than anticipated by some forecasts, but the early months of the year have been riddled with incidents likely to quell a fuller resurgence. The country has experienced a wave of Covid infections, flights to China continue to be incredibly expensive, and then there was the ‘balloon saga’ that increased diplomatic tensions with some nations, notably the US.
What does this all mean for the anticipated swell of travel to and from China beyond the APAC region? And does this stumbling growth in long-distance travel paint a broader picture of a transformed corporate travel scene? Perhaps previous forecasts and comparisons to pre-pandemic levels are misguided, with the anticipated ‘big bang’ of China’s reopening not really coming to fruition.
Not only has China’s isolationist policy slowed the recovery of business travel to and from the country, but we’re now operating in a different travel landscape awash with evolving trends, new habits and sustainability priorities that will impact not just travel to and from China, but business travel globally.
The ability to conduct business virtually – through Teams and Zoom – alongside new considerations around the environmental impact of travel, and even the effect of long-haul trips on travellers’ wellbeing, are already forcing some companies to consider which trips are strictly necessary. And those trips that do go ahead now are often longer, consolidating more meetings into fewer trips.
These evolving considerations, together with aforementioned developments in recent months, could see China’s return to business travel’s big stage further delayed. Indeed, for business travel volumes to return to what they once were in any region, we will all need to get to grips with new ways of thinking, working and travelling.