China passenger trips plummet over Lunar New Year due to Covid fears
Members of a lion dance team perform outside shops in Beijing on the fifth day of the Lunar New Year, which ushered in the Year of the Ox on February 12. AFP
Tens of millions of people in China stayed put during this year's Lunar New Year holiday -- the world's largest annual migration -- as passenger traffic more than halved under the shadow of the coronavirus.
The festive period typically starts with hundreds of millions of workers heading home from industrial zones and big cities, but this year Chinese authorities urged people to avoid the annual pilgrimage to avoid local flare-ups of Covid-19.
Strict restrictions aimed at curbing fresh outbreaks included repeated negative Covid-19 tests in order to travel and the risk of home quarantine, while migrants were also offered free phone data and online movies as incentives not to return home.
Passenger traffic over the Lunar New Year break plunged 58 percent from last year to 97.7 million trips, according to preliminary estimates from the transport ministry, including journeys made via railways, roads, waterways and air.
The tabloid Global Times said in an editorial Thursday that China had used its "orderly control" and "kept the festival alive".
Last year's figures were already impacted by the coronavirus outbreak as the city of Wuhan, where Covid-19 was first detected, was put under lockdown ahead of the 2020 national holiday -- and this year's decrease was more than 71 percent down on the 2019 figure, before the coronavirus outbreak hit.
But while many people put off their travel plans this year, they did not stop spending.
Retail and catering revenue among key companies leapt 29 percent on-year over the week, the commerce ministry said, as consumers decided to splash out instead of travel.
This also exceeded spending in the 2019 Lunar New Year period, with the ministry noting a boost to household products sales such as that of appliances, while the overlap with Valentines' Day supported sales of jewellery.
During the festive period, box office revenue exceeded seven billion yuan as cinema earnings this year soar -- despite a rule of 50 percent occupancy in theatres.