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More Than 600 Million People Travelled In China During Golden Week. How Did The Nation Avoid A Coronavirus Outbreak?

Just six months ago, Yi Yu’s hometown was emerging from the world’s first — and one of its strictest — lockdowns.

But during China’s Golden Week earlier this month, the streets of Wuhan, once ground zero COVID-19, were bustling with tourists.

“When I go outside, I can see lots of people on the street now,” Ms Yu said.

“I saw a lot of people lining up in front of a small street-food bar the other day. I can tell most of them are tourists.”

The city welcomed more than 18 million tourists during Golden Week from October 1 to 8, according to official data from the Wuhan Tourism Bureau.

Golden Week is a week-long holiday to celebrate the country’s National Day, and it typically generates a surge in tourism — almost all of it domestic in 2020 due to international border closures.

Some 637 million Chinese tourists travelled for Golden Week this year, injecting 466.6 billion Chinese yuan (about $96.4 billion) into the economy, according to the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Among the travellers was Ms Yu’s grandfather, who is in his 80s and was sick with COVID-19 symptoms at the height of the pandemic in Wuhan in February.

While he chose to stay close to home, only going on a road trip with Ms Yu’s sister to Wuhan’s outskirts, others travelled much further afield.

Among them was Shengwei Ye, who last month told the ABC he would have liked to spend Golden Week in Australia if it were not for the pandemic.

But instead, he journeyed from his home in Shenzhen in the south-east to Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the far north-west.

Mr Ye, who frequently travels for business, said he was struck by how crowded the airport was.

“I think there were probably even more people than the Chinese New Year holiday,” he said, comparing it to what is usually the busiest time for travelling.

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism said traveller numbers for Golden Week were at 80 per cent compared to last year, while tourism spending was at 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

Mass travel with no major outbreaks — yet

Despite the mass movement of hundreds of millions of people, the tourism boom has not yet resulted in a large outbreak in COVID-19 cases one week on.

China has officially recorded 90,800 cases and more than 4,700 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally.

The country currently has 622 active cases, most of them acquired overseas.

That includes 381 asymptomatic cases, which China records separately from its official tally.

But Qingdao, the largest city of Shandong province in China’s east, is bucking the trend.

Twelve new locally acquired cases were detected there last Sunday, just three days after Golden Week ended.

As of Wednesday, two more infections more had been recorded in the city.

In response, authorities have launched a city-wide testing blitz, aiming to test some 9 million residents in the next five days.

Before this, the last locally acquired case in China was recorded in mid-August.

Chinese state media credits the country’s traffic-light “health code system”, which uses popular smartphone apps and QR codes, with making such large volumes of travel possible.

The apps synchronise a citizen’s ID and their travel history. Their device pings nearby mobile phone towers to track their location and reveal whether they have been to areas deemed to be a high or medium risk during the past 14 days.

For example, if a person has been in Qingdao in the past few days, their QR code would be red or yellow, rather than green.

Facial recognition technology has also been adopted by public transportation hubs for “checking passengers’ identity and tickets”, according to state news outlet Global Times.

Prior to the Qingdao outbreak, there were no high- or medium-risk areas in China for two months. As Mr Ye pointed out, travellers would not have been hindered by a poor personal health code in Golden Week.

“But, in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, the protocols are much stricter than [in other] cities,” he said.

The region has long been described as a surveillance state for its Uyghur population, where more than a million people from the Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic group are detained in re-education centres.

In terms of COVID-19 measures, Mr Ye said Xinjiang had a more advanced temperature check system, which looked like a gate and was contactless.

“[They] can be seen everywhere and people are required to wear a mask all the time,” he said.

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