As COVID-19 limitations were lifted late last year, Urs Kessler, the owner of Jungfrau Railways, which runs a train that brings tourists to the top of Switzerland’s highest peak, was looking forward to Chinese tourists returning.
However, few have come to pass, with the exception of one tiny group in February and a few larger ones anticipated in May.
According to the Global Times newspaper, several tour operators, including Kessler, are frustrated by lower-than-expected bookings from high-spending Chinese tourists who, prior to the pandemic, would regularly squander between 1,500 and 3,000 euros per person.
Chinese outbound flight bookings to Europe during March and August are only 32% that of pre-pandemic levels, according to travel data firm ForwardKeys.
The travel industry is also grappling with cash-strapped domestic holidaymakers looking for cheaper vacations as energy and food bills rise. This summer, the second since Europe’s COVID restrictions ended, is a test for airports and airlines, scrambling to hire staff and avoid a repeat of last summer’s chaos.
“There’s still a long way to go to full recovery,” said Olivier Ponti, an executive at ForwardKeys.
“Chinese airlines are doing anything, everything they can to … operate those routes. But, you need the staff, you need the slots, you need the right level of service.”
Kessler, who ran a marketing campaign featuring pianist Lang Lang playing on top of the mountain to pander to the Chinese audience, is hoping groups from countries like the United States, South Korea and India will make up the shortfall.
Before the pandemic, Chinese tourism made up 10% of stays from non-EU tourists in Europe, with the market growing 350% in the decade to 2019, driven by a particular interest in luxury shopping and fine dining.
But bogged down by visa restrictions, long passport wait lines and limited airline tickets to Europe, which are in some cases 80% more expensive than before the pandemic, Chinese tourists are staying closer to home.
Instead, they’re taking their hard-earned pandemic savings to places like Hong Kong, where arrivals were up 1,400% in the last two months, or Thailand and Macau.
For the less wealthy, the price of getting to Europe is also a deterrent.
“Cost is definitely part of the consideration. A lot of flights haven’t opened up yet – that makes it harder to look at going to Europe soon – but we would love to travel outside of China more,” Shanghai-based Stephanie Lin, 33, told Reuters.