BEIJING: Yoga studio owner Zhu Lin did not go home for the holidays this year. Neither did she travel to a vacation spot, like tropical Hainan island, as she would have as an alternative on some years.
Like it did for millions of others this Chinese New Year, COVID-19 put paid to the 34-year-old's plans. She remained in Beijing for the week-long Chinese New Year holiday.
Ms Zhu is one of many who have heeded the call by Chinese authorities to stay put at their city of work this festive season.
This follows a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, mostly in the northern regions of China from the end of last year, with more than a hundred new daily infections recorded on some days in January - the highest since March 2020.
While the latest case loads are a small percentage of what China handled at the peak of its outbreak last year, authorities have been concerned enough to impose new measures like mandatory testing and home observation in some areas.
Some cities have dished out enticements ranging from cash gifts to school admission points and even free mobile data - all in an effort to persuade people to stay.
"The concern is the pandemic is not stable, I am concerned about it not being safe on the road and if there are quarantine requirements," said Ms Zhu. "There's concern that this will affect a lot of normal operations."
Wednesday (Feb 17) marks the end of the one-week holiday, part of what is typically referred to as the world's largest annual human migration. Numbers for the 40-day Spring Festival travel rush, or "chunyun", are expected this year to be a fraction of what they usually are.
Authorities project there will be 1.15 billion passenger trips this year - 20 per cent less than last year and 60 per cent lower than in 2019, before the pandemic struck.
While the Beijing railway station used to be teeming with crowds dragging their suitcases on their journey home, the place was visibly emptier when CNA visited just before the start of the holidays.
Half of Ms Zhu's staff at the yoga studio also chose to forego their trips.
While the studio usually closes for the New Year, she sees a new business opportunity this time round.
"I think it's also a rare opportunity. This year, everybody is not leaving Beijing, many of our members are asking if we are taking a break this Spring Festival and not to take a break because they have time to come for classes every day," said Ms Zhu.
"Our teachers will conduct classes as per normal, but we have stopped our small group classes because it's not good to gather with the pandemic. We will focus on one-on-one sessions."
It's the second year in a row that Chinese New Year festivities have been disrupted by the pandemic.
Beijing reported a handful of cases in January and has since imposed some of the strictest restrictions for incoming travellers.
Those deemed from high or medium risk areas are not allowed to enter without approval from local authorities, while those from low risk areas have to produce a negative COVID-19 test result upon arrival and undergo 14 days of health monitoring. During which, they will have to do be tested for the virus on day seven and 14 of their arrival.
This also comes as the Chinese capital prepares to host China's all important annual parliamentary meetings next month.
"Of course staying here isn't as festive as being back home, where you can typically gather with friends and relatives, karaoke, have a meal … but what can you do?" said Zhou Xiuxiu, who has lived in Beijing for a decade.
The 36-year-old's hometown of Xingtai in Hebei province had been among the cities placed under lockdown in January to curb the spread of the virus.
"Because of the pandemic we just won't go back for the time being," said Ms Zhou who added she hoped to make a trip back after the festive period.
"The feeling is like it's never ending."
ALTERNATIVES TO CELEBRATE THE NEW YEAR
With more choosing to stay put – travel platform Trip.com group said air ticket prices have fallen by more than 60 per cent on some routes.
But it said more Chinese have been exploring alternatives – like hotel staycations or short trips in the vicinity to celebrate the New Year.
Skiing destinations and hot springs are among the top searches.
But looking ahead, Trip.com Group chairman James Liang told CNA he remains hopeful that there will be a recovery as the latest outbreak appears to be under control and as the weather gets warmer.
China reported 16 new coronavirus cases on Feb 15, all imported.
"We are reasonably optimistic. Last year, by the end of the first half, into the second half of the year we saw 80 to 90 per cent recovery and (for) some destinations … more than a hundred per cent (recovery), much better than the pre-COVID era. For Hainan and Sanya we saw very strong recovery in the last two quarters," said Mr Liang.
"Hopefully we will see a similar pattern of recovery this year and in the long run, we are still very optimistic about the leisure travel market."
HEADING HOME, AT ALL COST
In spite of the hassle – there were some who chose to head home.
25-year-old beautician Liu Mingxia, who works in Beijing, returned to her hometown in Shanxi province to celebrate the New Year with her family.
After all, the week-long break is the longest vacation she gets every year.
"There is already very little time to get together with my parents in a year and I feel that the New Year is a time when the family should be reunited," she said.
"My parents are getting older, so I should try and spend more time together with them if it's possible."
For her journey home, she armed herself with a COVID-19 test.
"I don't find it troublesome. If you're in Beijing, this is also about being responsible to the people around you," she said. "If we need to do (the COVID-19 test), we will do it. This is not a hassle."
But while Ms Liu intends to make her way back to Beijing after the Chinese New Year break, there are some who feel that the pandemic has taken too much of a toll this past year.
30-year-old delivery rider Gao Guangfeng said while his employer had offered incentives for him to stay behind and work, he chose to forego that to spend time with his wife and two-year-old daughter back home in Inner Mongolia.
Mr Gao bought a one-way ticket.
He plans to find a job back in his hometown, even if it pays less. Being separated from his family during the pandemic, he said, is no longer a viable option for him.
"I didn't get to go back home last year because of the pandemic and my family asked me to go back this year because my child is still young after all," Mr Gao told CNA.
"I haven't seen her this whole year, it's like she doesn't recognise me anymore."