Jorge Coromina

How Chinese ATOs reversed three years lost to the pandemic

Jorge Coromina

How Chinese ATOs reversed three years lost to the pandemic

COVID-19 halted a decade of spectacular growth in Chinese travel. With borders closed for three years, OTAs (online travel agencies) rebuilt their domestic models while awaiting the return of overseas travel. 

Chinese travellers returned to the world map on 8 January. In the first half of 2023, an uneven economic recovery and various supply and demand constraints slowed the recovery of foreign travel. The second half of the year should see further acceleration, with Asia-Pacific destinations as the main beneficiaries. 

With the final removal of COVID restrictions, bookings on Chinese OTAs are picking up. Cindy Wang, CFO of, stated that net revenue increased "83% quarter-on-quarter" in Q1 2023. The first quarter was "a historic quarter 

They are also launching new partnerships, such as Fliggy's partnership with Globaltix, introducing AI chatbots like TripGen, gamified NFTs like Trekki and augmented reality glasses that create spontaneous visual experiences for European museum visitors. New marketing partnerships are being signed with tourism boards and travel suppliers around the world, while Tongcheng explores merger and acquisition options in international package tours. 

China's long border closure forced its entire travel industry to redirect its resources towards the domestic market. Between spring 2020 and January 2023, OTAs rethought their business models by growing their customer bases in lower-tier cities, supporting user-generated content and investing in smart booking, marketing and member benefits tools.

China entered the pandemic as the world's largest outbound market, with 170 million cross-border trips in 2019. While outbound travel grabs the headlines, the domestic market boasts exceptional numbers. China is a mainland-sized nation of 1.4 billion people with 6 billion domestic trips in 2019. The magnitude of domestic demand underpins China's status as the world's second largest air market, which it retained comfortably during the pandemic. 

The three-year journey undertaken by the OTAs was transformative. China's experience with SARS in 2002-03 and other coronaviruses since, as well as the government's refusal to accept foreign vaccines, discouraged a quick resolution of COVID-19. The Chinese tourism industry clung to its leading position in the fight against the pandemic. China's tourism sector dug in for a long period of isolation. 

The suspension of the profitable outbound sector forced OTAs to make inflexible decisions. Ensuring short-term competitiveness by cutting costs was paramount. At the same time, they had to invest in smart technology and diversified products to stimulate the return of travel to China, whenever that might be.  

But above all, they needed to optimise revenue from Chinese domestic travellers as competition intensified. Here are some of the measures they took:

Meanwhile, international air capacity is rebuilding, exceeding 50% this summer compared to the 2019 level, and is forecast to reach 80% by the end of the year. Unleashed pent-up domestic demand is helping OTAs benefit from their pandemic focus on building more diversified domestic customer bases and enhanced travel offerings. As Ma Heping, CEO of Tongcheng, commented, "2023 is about capitalising on the investments of the past three years."

In collaboration with:

The authors are responsible for the choice and presentation of the facts contained in this document and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of Tourism and Society Think Tank and do not commit the Organization, and should not be attributed to TSTT or its members.

This site uses cookies from Google to deliver its services and to analyze traffic. Information about your use of this site is shared with Google. By using this site, you agree to its use of cookies.