BEIJING (Reuters) - Flight bookings surged by up to 15 times after Beijing relaxed quarantine rules, raising hope that a release of pent-up demand ahead of a major holiday will breathe life into China's battered tourism industry.
The Chinese capital had until Wednesday lived under some of the strictest novel coronavirus preventive measures in the country, including a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving.
That requirement was scrapped from Thursday for travellers from low-risk areas of China, just ahead of a five-day May Day holiday, beginning on Friday.
"It finally happened. I quickly bought a couple of air tickets for Chengdu leaving in two days," said Zheng Lijun, 27, a Beijing office worker.
"I've always wanted to see the pandas."
Chengdu is capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, where China's pandas live.
The Labour Day holiday is China's first extended break since the easing of coronavirus lockdowns, offering a glimpse of what travel may look like after the epidemic. The number of daily flights in China is at 42% of pre-epidemic levels.
Data from online reservation service Qunar.com showed air bookings out of Beijing jumped by 15 times in the first half hour after news of the end of restrictions on Wednesday.
Searches on various travel sights including for hotels quadrupled, it said.
Fliggy, the travel booking platform of the Alibaba Group <BABA.N>, said it saw orders for air tickets, in and out of Beijing, jump more than 500% in the hour after the announcement.
Prices also rose. Zheng paid 480 yuan ($68) for her ticket on Wednesday. But Thursday, it had more than doubled to 1,090 yuan.
Travel booking site Trip.com said a large proportion of the 72 million yuan worth of coupons it sold at a livestreaming event on Wednesday was purchased by Beijing-based consumers.
Many tour groups and airlines have rolled out generous offers to spur demand.
Some tourist sites are now requiring advanced booking to limit crowds. Some have been told to limit guests to 30% of capacity amid lingering coronavirus worries.
The Ministry of Transport said it expected 117 million people to travel by road, rail or air during the holiday, or 23.36 million per day, about one third the daily volume last year.
Zhou Weihong, deputy general manager of Shanghai-based travel agency Spring Tour, said travel agencies were still not allowed to organise trips across provincial borders.
"But at least we have hope now," she said.
(Reporting by Sophie Yu and Brenda Goh; Editing by Robert Birsel)