Various measures aim to help bolster travel agencies hit hard by epidemic
A series of measures were included in a recently released guideline to shore up the confidence of China's tourism market operators and workers who have been hit hard by the COVID-19 epidemic.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism said that although the domestic industry is in recovery thanks to unremitting efforts to contain the epidemic and earlier support measures, the tourism industry has not yet emerged from the predicament. This is because services for tourists who want to leave or enter the mainland remain suspended as sporadic outbreaks continue to have an impact on recovery.
The ministry said that domestic travel numbers and tourism-related revenues generated in 2020 decreased by 52.1 percent and 51 percent, respectively, compared to 2019.
The situation improved last year, as the two indexes saw respective declines of only 46 percent and 49 percent from 2019, before the start of the epidemic.
To help restore the development of tourism and related service industries like the accommodation and transportation sectors, 14 central departments－including the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism－jointly released a policy late last month.
It presented seven specific measures to assist tour operators and staff, including guidelines pertaining to travel service deposits, unemployment insurance and cooperation with financial institutions.
According to the policy, China will continue to reimburse travel agencies 80 percent of travel service deposits－which are used, for example, to pay back customers if an agency runs afoul of national standards－and encourage provinces and regions in better financial condition to raise reimbursement levels.
It also suggested that provinces and regions with a surplus of funds collected for unemployment and work-related injury insurance can allow tourism companies to defer insurance payments for up to a year, while exempting overdue fees.
Financial institutions are urged to cooperate with tour companies to channel more investment into A-rated attractions, resorts and hotels with good development prospects, and offer more flexible credit lines.
Furthermore, the policy encourages administrative departments and units to contract their team-building activities with travel agencies.
Sun Guizhen, secretary-general of China Association of Travel Services, said the policy strongly supports efforts by travel agencies to undertake official activities, which will help restore regular operations.
Sun said travel agencies have standardized management and experience in offering services, which can help reduce the cost of organizing official activities.
"In particular, travel agencies that were offering inbound and outbound travel services that have been hit hard by the epidemic can get involved in official activities, trips and exhibitions to boost development," she said.
Qiu Yinhao, vice-president of the Xband Tourism Group, which is headquartered in Shanghai and focuses on running homestays, praised the policy.
"The policy is of great importance to tour company operators," he said. "It gives us confidence that we can restore our businesses after enduring severe challenges caused by the epidemic."
Qiu recalled the tough times Xband experienced during the early stages.
"I remember it was the Spring Festival holiday of 2020, the period we normally have good business," he said. "The COVID-19 outbreak inflicted great economic losses. We gave full, unconditional refunds to our consumers. To help us get through difficulties, our partners and the local government gave us allowances and rent rebates."
Liu Dong, director of the pubic affairs department at online travel agency Tuniu, said his company, which has been striving to improve development over the past two years, now has more confidence because of the new policy.
"The whole industry, including tourism, hotels and catering, has faced great challenges because of the outbreaks, and domestic tourism companies remain in a protracted battle," he said.
He added that the agency is considering taking steps to improve its ability to deal with emergencies, as the tourism market has changed due to the epidemic.
"We are thinking of a way to create more new products to offer to our users. It's something that travel agencies should consider to help stabilize business and make advances against the backdrop of normalized epidemic control measures."
Despite tough times, tour company operators said they are optimistic about the market's future recovery and development, and that they are looking forward to the benefits the support policy will bring.
"Though the policy can't fundamentally solve the problems we've faced so far, it shows the government is resolutely supporting the recovery of the tourism industry. It will help stabilize the market and relieve the pressures we are facing," said Zou Qingling, CEO of Lvmama, an online travel service provider.
It will also help companies retain talent and boost the high-quality development of the industry, she added.
Qiu, from Xband, added that he wishes the government would focus on the whole tourism service industry－not just travel agencies, hotels and attractions, but also villages and homestays that play an active role in rural tourism development.
"We look forward to seeing the implementation of the policy and its good results," he said.