(Bloomberg) — Tourist spots were flooded, movie theaters were packed and fireworks displays lit up the night sky as China celebrated the Lunar New Year with an abandonment that marked the end of its three-year Covid Zero experiment.
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The abrupt dismantling of Covid restrictions in China in December allowed everyone to travel and socialize freely for the country’s biggest festival for the first time since 2019. More than 300 million trips were made during the holidays, almost 90% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
The optimistic mood is good news for the Chinese economy and for President Xi Jinping after widespread public anger over the zero-tolerance policy that erupted late last year, which raised uncomfortable questions and created the potential for backlash. While the revelry is a welcome relief after recurring lockdowns, it also carries the risk of reigniting the omicron wave that has seared the country in recent weeks, filling hospitals and overwhelming crematoria.
“The pent-up demand is being released as many people rush to scenic spots, watch fireworks displays, and flock to restaurants and hotels,” Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura Holdings Inc., wrote in a statement Thursday. The data released by the government “suggest that the ‘exit wave’ is rapidly coming to an end”.
The speed with which China has charged through its reopening is unmatched. A month ago, the government estimated that 37 million people contracted the virus every day. The streets became silent. Just as quickly, the population seems to have moved on.
However, it is unclear how serious and widespread the outbreak is. The government has halted universal testing and changed how it defines Covid mortality, clouding official reporting. According to a report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, the number of patients hospitalized with serious illnesses or died from Covid has decreased by more than 70% since the peak in early January.
Read more: Chinese tourist sites buzzing during holidays despite Covid risks
While extreme weather conditions in some regions have exacerbated traffic, many people have not been deterred by the challenge or risk of supercharging the world’s largest Covid outbreak. Total bookings were four times higher than last year, when strict measures restricted travel and the spread of the virus, according to Trip.com.
The jubilation of the reopening has mixed with tourism-related headaches. Carol Gong, who reunited with her family in Shanghai, was overwhelmed by crowds on a day trip to Disneyland.
“It felt like we were watching a zombie movie, as people lined up heel to heel and shoulder to shoulder in a winding queue,” said Gong, who waited an hour in freezing weather to enter the theme park. Still, it was worth it, he said. “People are so relieved that China has reopened. They are starting to relax and enjoy life.
The box office surpassed last year’s takings, and crowd control was needed at some tourist sites such as the rugged mountain ranges in Anhui province. In Huangshan, or Yellow Mountains, there were reports of some people being stranded for hours overnight in the snow.
And the symbolic Spring Festival gala, a televised variety show featuring music, dance and comedy performances to welcome in the new year, made no significant mention of the virus. Live audience members did not wear masks.
Local governments across China have dropped limits on fireworks displays after unusually violent altercations between revelers and police. The move has freed up people in cities including Kunming, Zhengzhou and Hangzhou to celebrate the holiday in the traditional way. Regional media reported an exponential increase in demand. The cost of a popular brand, Gatling, has soared to 200 yuan per stick from 20 yuan before the holidays.
Consumption, already rising, is expected to drive a recovery after China’s economy grew at its second-slowest pace since the 1970s in 2022 due to Covid disruptions. Consumer spending on Ant Group Co.’s Alipay payment platform has more than doubled in tourist destinations compared to a year ago, the company said. Searches for hotel reservations have increased by 600% and hotel spending on the platform has increased by 80%, he said.
“The epidemic seemed to suddenly disappear for the vast majority of people,” Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the state-run tabloid Global Times, said in a tweet. “The Chinese Lunar New Year is very lively. Consumption recovered quickly.”
For people enjoying their first unlimited home visits in years, it’s the connections that matter most.
“I am using this Spring Festival to make up for all the meetings I missed in the past three years,” said Catherine Zhou, in Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province. “Delayed marriages are underway. I see so many faces that I haven’t met in a long time. The Chinese tradition of being together has finally started again.”
–With assistance from Colum Murphy, Fran Wang and James Mayger.
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