With international tourism all but dead for many parts of the world as governments keep borders tightly under control, China is experiencing a renaissance in domestic tourism.

As the first country to deal with Covid-19, with strict handling of the virus keeping infections to almost nothing for many months, a lot of life is back to normal in China, despite restricted international borders. And domestic travel figures are already close to their pre-pandemic highs.

“Tourism, meetings, trade shows and concerts are back to normal. Being unable to travel out of the country is not a problem for the Chinese as they flock to domestic destinations that provide a unique experience, similar to travelling abroad,” said Phisut Itsaracheewawat, a Thai who works for a tech company in Shanghai.

The Association of Thai Travel Agents is facing the grim reality that the days of nearly 11 million Chinese tourists arriving like in 2019 are not coming back anytime soon. The heavily courted demographic that previously made up 25% of international tourists, and was a primary focus of Thailand’s entire tourism strategy is content exploring their own country for the time being.

In China, vaccine rollout has been fast and efficient, but with a country of its size, China won’t reach its 70% vaccination threshold to open borders unrestricted until next year. No formal travel bubbles seem to be in the works and while many countries including Thailand continue to market tourism to the valuable Chinese traveller demographic, restrictions like limited flights and 28-day quarantines for reentering China are keeping citizens from international travel.

Airlines are limited to just one international destination with one flight a week per Chinese airport. For example, flights to Thailand were reduced from 40,000 people before Covid-19 to just one weekly flight from Beijing to Bangkok with 180 seats. Tour companies are forbidden from selling international packages as overseas tour groups are not allowed.

With international travel so limited and Covid-19 mostly contained, domestic tourism numbers in China have been swelling and are expected to grow beyond pre-Covid-19 numbers by next month. Holiday travel this month is expected to be 30% more than 2019 before the pandemic and up 270% from last year.

China has built up as tourist attractions “model cities” that are replicas of popular destinations around the world. They are promoting Hainan island as a shopping paradise with duty-free stores and growing luxury activities like yachting trips and beach holidays. The diversity of the large country gives people to see everything from cities to mountains to beaches to deserts without ever pulling out their passports.

Targeted economic stimulus measures have put promoting domestic tourism at the forefront in China, with plans to incentivise people to spend any disposable stimulus money they can on travelling. Designated tourist destinations have digital vouchers for retail so people will flock there on holiday and shop ’til they drop. Some stimulus payments are even earmarked to only be receivable by withdrawing them from ATMs at these tourist destinations to drive traffic there.

The focus in China on domestic tourism has done wonders for the Chinese economy and with the travel business booming, countries like Thailand could be learning a thing or two about how to stimulate their own tourism sectors. Other countries could take advantage of closed borders as China has done to get their citizens exploring their home country and pumping tourist money into the economy