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GRAPHIC-China New Year travel slumps amid coronavirus curbs

BEIJING, Feb 12 (Reuters) - The number of people who travelled in China ahead of Lunar New Year plummeted from two years ago as coronavirus restrictions curbed the world’s largest annual domestic migration.

The seven-day celebration, which kicked off on Thursday, is China’s most important national holiday and is usually marked by big family reunions. Millions of workers traditionally travel - sometimes thousands of kilometres from Beijing and other major cities - to their hometowns in remote regions.

Data from the Ministry of Transportation, Chinese internet giant Baidu Inc and travel analytics firm ForwardKeys showed a sharp drop in the percentage of the country’s 1.45 billion population who travelled this year.

With some 48 million more people expected to stay put in 36 major cities this year compared to years past, according to the commerce ministry, utility companies and movie theatres are preparing for heightened demand.

Ministry of Transportation data showed a 70% drop in the number of passenger trips across the country in the two weeks leading up to Lunar New Year, compared with the same period two years ago. Travel during last year’s holiday period, during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, was also disrupted.

A travel index published by Baidu Inc based on GPS data from its users showed a 41% fall in travellers compared with 2019.

Flight bookings for the two weeks prior to the holiday stood at 32.8% of the equivalent period in 2019, while tickets issued during the holiday period were just 14.7% of the 2019 level, according to travel analytics firm ForwardKeys.

“The outlook for travel over the Chinese New Year period is currently dreadful ... You can see the impact of official travel restrictions clearly in consumer booking behaviour,” said Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights at ForwardKeys.

China’s government in January urged people to abandon travel plans following fresh COVID-19 outbreaks, leading local governments to impose strict quarantine measures. Some areas relaxed their stance in recent days, triggering some last minute bookings, particularly for Sanya, a popular holiday destination in the South China Sea.

STAYCATION CONSUMPTION BOOM

Logistics firms, energy producers and entertainment providers like restaurants and cinemas have been preparing for greater numbers of people who have stayed in the major cities.

Pre-sales of movie tickets for the holiday period stood at 1.463 billion yuan ($226.67 million) as of Feb. 11, just beating the 1.458 billion yuan recorded in 2019, according to data from Dengta, a box office data tracker run by Alibaba Pictures .

China’s State Grid expected the peak load in eastern China would increase about 18% over the holiday period this year, compared with 2020, while in northwestern and southwestern China it would rise 10%.

China Southern Power Grid estimated the peak load in southern regions would be up 14% from last year, as some industrial plants are expected to resume operations earlier than normal years.

($1 = 6.4542 yuan)

Reporting by Muyu Xu and Tony Munroe; Editing by Jane Wardell

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