China is evidence of the world’s pent-up travel demand
12/14/2020|9:06:52 AM|Fortune

COVID-19 has crippled the travel industry, but demand for trips is still alive and well. 

During a Fortune Global Tech Forum virtual conversation, four travel experts cited China as proof that travel globally could rebound once the pandemic eases and that domestic tourism can serve as a partial stopgap for the industry until then.

As of September, the number of air passengers traveling within China had equaled the total for all of last year. That's because of a surge in domestic travel, since international trips remain all but off-limits. The domestic travel boom in China is due to "pent-up demand" for international travel, said Craig S. Smith, group president of international for Marriott International.

Other countries in Asia, like Japan and Thailand, are also benefiting from upticks in domestic travel, but not to the same extent as China. "There's still a lot of caution in all these markets," said Steve Saxon, partner at McKinsey & Company.

Domestic travel is a less viable alternative to international trips in smaller nations. Singapore, for instance, has largely kept a lid on new local coronavirus infections, but it suffers the disadvantage of being an island of 280 square miles with a single commercial airport. Group, China's top online travel agency, reported a quarterly profit recently for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, thanks to domestic demand. Still, CEO Jane Sun hopes that China will be able to set up “travel bubbles” with countries that have the virus under control—Singapore being one.

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