China May Day holiday spending shows mixed picture on post-COVID recovery

Fireworks light up over Victoria Harbour for the Chinese Labour Day 'Golden Week' holiday, in Hong Kong

By Sophie Yu and Casey Hall

BEIJING (Reuters) -Domestic travellers spent 166.9 billion yuan ($23.13 billion) during one of China's longest breaks, the May Day holiday, a rise of 13.5% from pre-pandemic levels, government data showed on Monday, but expenditure per head lagged 2019 rates.

Boosting consumer confidence has presented a key challenge for Chinese authorities this year amid a declining property market, high youth unemployment and deflation pressures.

The total spent over the May 1 to 5 holiday was 12.7% higher than last year, shortly after China lifted COVID-19 curbs, and the tourism ministry recorded 295 million domestic trips during the holiday.

But spending of 565.7 yuan per head during the holiday period, a key opportunity for residents to go on family trips as the weather warms and spring flowers bloom, was down 11.5% from pre-COVID levels in 2019, Reuters calculations based on official data show.

The data dampens hopes for rebounding consumption after spending strengthened during another recent holiday, the Tomb Sweeping festival, but wasn't a surprise, said Jonathan Yan, a Shanghai-based partner at consultancy Roland Berger.

"Overall, I think people are tightening their belts and confidence is subdued, but they still want experience," Yan said, adding that many travellers opted for short-haul overseas destinations such as Japan and Korea for the five-day break.

"They are not spending more money than before, but still travelling while trading down a bit or spending less on shopping," he said.

Domestic airline fares fell in the run-up to the holiday, as forecasts suggested more travellers were opting to drive instead, or had booked early to save.

The number of short trips grew noticeably during the break, Guotai Junan Securities said in a research note on Monday.

Growth in the number of trips in small cities and counties outstripped that in big cities, travel giant added.

Box-office sales of 1.53 billion yuan roughly matched last year's figure of 1.52 billion over the corresponding period, the China Film Administration said.

"Formed Police Unit", a film about Chinese police on overseas peacekeeping missions for the United Nations, topped the holiday box-office charts with earnings of more than 400 million yuan, data from box-office tracker Maoyan showed.

($1=7.2147 Chinese yuan renminbi)

(Reporting by Sophie Yu andCasey Hall; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Bernadette Baum)