A South Korean woman in traditional clothes attends Madrid FITUR tourims congress, where delegates welcomed China's decision to reopen its borders

Madrid (AFP) - China’s prolific and big-spending tourists have been stuck at home, unable to travel for almost three years, and their looming return has industry professionals abuzz at a major Madrid tourism congress this week.

China was the world’s largest outbound tourist market before the pandemic, with 154 million international travellers in 2019, according to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Travellers from China were also the biggest spenders, accounting for $255 billion in tourism dollars, the Madrid-based organisation said in a report this week.

But travel in and out of China dropped dramatically under China’s zero-Covid curbs, which all but shut borders for three years before reopening them on January 8.

The WTO hailed the removal of Beijing’s virus travel restrictions as “a significant and much-welcomed step to the recovery of the tourism sector”.

“Three years is a long time, we’re glad they’re coming back,” said Angela Harizaj, head of sales for “My Tour in Italy,” at the five-day FITUR tourism congress in Madrid.

“Before the pandemic, we used to work a lot with the Chinese market,” Harizaj added.

The fair, which began Wednesday and wraps up Sunday, is expected to draw 120,000 participants and 8,500 firms.

- ‘Recovery is underway’ -

A visitor walks past China's stand at Madrid's FITUR tourism congress

Carlos Garrido de la Cierva, the head of the Spanish Confederation of Travel Agencies, predicted that Chinese tourists’ “strong desire to travel” after three years of restrictions would likely give the sector a boost.

“In many countries, the recovery was immediate when the restrictions were lifted. We hope that we will have the same thing here,” he added.

Vanessa Losbar, the sales manager of global French chain B&B Hotels, said the company has already recorded 10,000 requests for stays in the Paris region from groups of Chinese tourists.

“Clearly, the recovery is underway… Finally!,” she said.

- Obstacles remain -

But the UNWTO said Tuesday in its report that the resumption of travel from China was “likely to benefit Asian destinations in particular”.

Women wearing traditional clothes are pictured at Iran's stand at Madrid's FITUR tourism fair

It recalled that as of mid-January, 32 nations – mainly in Asia and Europe – had imposed specific travel restrictions related to travel from China due to a rise in Covid-19 infections in the country.

China has responded by ceasing to issue short-term visas to people from several nations.

A lack of flights and the high price of air travel could hamper the recovery of the Chinese market, said Tim Fairhurst of the European Tourism Association.

During the pandemic, airlines slashed their flights to and from China and it will “take time” to restore them, he added.

Many Chinese people saw their passports expire during the past three years and a sudden demand to renew them may cause bottlenecks.

“The return of Chinese tourists may take a bit of time, but we are on the right track,” said Harizaj of “My Tour in Italy”.