China’s International Rebound Gains Momentum

passengers arriving at Beijing Capital International Airport

International arrivals have been increasing at Chinese gateways such as Beijing Capital International Airport.

Credit: Jade Gao/AFP/Getty Images

The recovery in air travel to and from China has been gathering pace in recent months, as airlines respond to easing restrictions by ramping up services in this key market.

  • China and other governments have cleared major obstacles
  • Many carriers are restoring routes and frequencies to mainland China

The Chinese government raised hopes for reopening international travel in December when it revealed its intention to remove a range of entry restrictions. However, there were still specific steps required to implement these changes for many categories of international travelers.

More hurdles emerged in January, when several countries imposed new entry requirements on travelers from China due to concerns about an uptick in COVID-19 infections.

There has been significant progress in these areas over the past month. Many foreign governments now have removed their restrictions on travel from China. And the Chinese government itself has taken some of the additional steps needed to fulfill its reopening goals.

Airlines—particularly those in the Asia-Pacific region—are announcing schedule changes to increase their capacity on routes to and from mainland China, and this trend likely will increase in the coming months.

After nearly three years at very low levels, China’s international capacity has been rising steadily since January (see chart). For the week of March 27, weekly international seats reached 34.2% of 2019 levels, according to data from CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG. This compares with a 9.7% recovery rate at the end of December 2022. There is still a long way to go, but the trend is encouraging.


China’s government announced in late December that it would drop all quarantine requirements as of Jan. 8, although a predeparture COVID-19 test would still be needed for entry. Airline flight and load factor caps also were abolished.

The government said it would restore processes for outbound travelers to apply for passports and authorizations to travel overseas, too. China said it would resume issuing visas and entry permits for foreign inbound travelers and reinstate its transit visa waiver program.

However, the timing for some of these changes was unclear, particularly regarding the resumption of inbound tourist travel.

More clarity emerged in March, when the government announced that it would resume issuing all categories of entry visas beginning March 15. Areas and visitor categories that were subject to visa-free travel before the pandemic were to regain this status. Additionally, multiyear visas issued before the pandemic will be honored if still valid.

In another important move, the government has allowed Chinese tour groups to resume visiting certain countries. In early February, it authorized outbound tour group travel to a list of 20 countries. Another 40 countries were added on March 15. Notably absent from the list, however, are Australia, Japan, South Korea and the U.S., among other countries.

It has also been a case of two steps forward and one step back, as governments of some other countries have reimposed restrictions. The removal of many domestic anti-pandemic measures helped spur a surge in COVID-19 cases in China. This prompted many governments to introduce new rules for inbound travel from China in January—steps that were criticized by the Chinese government.

The exact requirements differed. In most cases they involved predeparture testing and sometimes testing on arrival as well. Certain countries included Hong Kong and Macau in their China testing requirements.

In terms of operational restrictions, some countries such as Japan and South Korea directed airlines to hold China frequencies at the same levels with no new additions. China flights were also limited to selected gateway airports. However, most of the countries that reintroduced restrictions on inbound travel from China have now removed—or at least dramatically reduced—these rules, as China’s latest COVID-19 wave abated.

For example, the Australian, Canadian and U.S. governments, as well as some others, lifted their requirements for predeparture testing for arrivals from China beginning in mid-March. The U.K. is slated to do so on April 5.

Japan is one example of how some requirements remain for travelers from China. The Japanese government announced in late February that it would discontinue blanket arrival testing of travelers from mainland China and remove restrictions on flights effective March 1.

The country will retain some measures, however. A sample of 20% of passengers arriving in Japan from China still will be subject to arrival testing. Predeparture testing will continue to be necessary as well.

Airlines from several countries are now responding to relaxed requirements by resuming more of their pre-pandemic flights to mainland China. This has caused China’s international capacity to increase in recent months, and now airlines are signaling that more ambitious steps are forthcoming.

All Nippon Airways (ANA) is the latest airline to announce major additions to its China network. The carrier plans to resume flights from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Beijing and both Shanghai airports—Pudong and Hongqiao—starting April 1. This represents the first time it has flown these routes from Haneda since March 2020.

ANA currently serves Beijing and Shanghai Pudong with flights from Tokyo’s Narita Airport. These flights will continue even after the Haneda services to these cities are added. From Narita, ANA also flies to Qing-dao, Hangzhou, Dalian, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

The airline tells Aviation Week it is operating 10% of its pre-pandemic flights to China. The resumption of the three Haneda routes will push this figure above 20%.

Korean Air revealed plans on March 10 to ramp up its China services, following an agreement reached between the respective governments a week earlier. The carrier was operating 13 weekly flights between South Korea and mainland China as of early March, and it intends to increase this to 84 flights per week by the end of March and 99 per week in May. This means Korean Air’s China frequencies would reach 38% of 2019 levels in March/April and 43% in May/June.

Emirates has resumed services to major Chinese gateways Beijing and Shanghai since the January reopening moves, and it has increased flights to Guangzhou. This gave Emirates 21 weekly frequencies to China as of mid-March.

Data from CAPA and OAG shows Emirates was operating 47% of its weekly seats to China for the week of March 20, versus pre-pandemic levels. Further gains are expected, with Emirates planning to upgauge its Beijing flights and add frequencies.

Australia’s major gateway, Sydney Airport, reports that flights and passenger traffic to China have been improving since the removal of many travel restrictions. There are scheduled to be six airlines flying routes between Sydney and mainland China by the end of April, offering a total of 26 return flights per week. In comparison, there were just three airlines with four return flights per week in December 2022.

The number of Chinese nationals traveling through Sydney Airport in February was still only 24.9% of 2019 levels, but this was higher than the 22.8% level in January of this year.

Mainland China represented Australia’s largest source of overseas visitors in 2019, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows.

Southeast Asian low-cost carrier group AirAsia also is targeting China expansion as a key element in its post-pandemic network recovery.

The AirAsia Group resumed its China flights in February, and the group expected to operate 67 flights per week in March. It plans to be operating 290 weekly flights to China by August and aims increase that total to 363 by November. These planned flights would mean a return to 90% of AirAsia’s pre-pandemic capacity to China by August and 111% by November.

SriLankan Airlines is another carrier that is looking to boost its China network. SriLankan plans to resume flights to Beijing and Shanghai on April 3, starting with three weekly services on each route. The airline is operating flights to Guangzhou already, and these are scheduled to increase to three times a week beginning April 4. In 2019, China represented the third-largest source of visitors for Sri Lanka, behind only India and the UK.

The easing of international entry restrictions has helped carriers based in mainland China as well as airlines overseas.

For example, China Southern Airlines on March 18 revealed plans to boost some of its key international routes in April. This includes raising its frequencies to London’s Heathrow Airport from three times per week to daily service starting on April 10. The carrier also intends to lift frequencies significantly in April on routes from its Guangzhou hub to Tokyo; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Phuket, Thailand. It plans to add more flights on routes from other Chinese cities, such as Dalian-Tokyo and Shenzhen- Hanoi.

Adrian Schofield

Adrian is a senior air transport editor for Aviation Week, based in New Zealand. He covers commercial aviation in the Asia-Pacific region.