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A blizzard threatens to put a chill on the Lunar New Year holiday—and on Beijing’s hopes of boosting the economy

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One of China’s two great holiday seasons is underway, as millions of Chinese prepare to travel for Lunar New Year. But China’s meteorologists are worried that bad winter weather could put a dampener on holiday travels this year. On Tuesday, the China Meteorological Administration warned that widespread rain, snow and freezing weather could hit central and eastern China until Feb. 5.

The blizzard would hit during “chunyun,” or the Lunar New Year travel rush. Millions return to their hometown to celebrate the start of a new lunar year in what is often referred to as the world’s largest annual migration. (While this year’s Lunar New Year falls on Feb. 10, travel can start as early as two weeks beforehand)

Wintry weather has hit the Lunar New Year holiday before. In 2008, winter storms caused blackouts across many cities in China, disrupting travel services and stranding millions during the Lunar New Year period. Economists estimate the bad weather led to a direct economic loss of $22.3 billion.

While weather authorities don’t think this year will be quite as bad as 2008, officials still warned travelers to expect delays on public transport.

Economic chills

This year’s Lunar New Year celebrations will be the country’s second without COVID restrictions since the pandemic. Yet last year’s travel season was marred by a surge of COVID cases, with health officials even encouraging potential travelers to stay home and avoid bringing the disease with them.

China’s transport ministry forecasts a record high of nine billion trips for this year’s travel season.

A disrupted Lunar New Year could deny a boost to the stumbling Chinese economy. Consumers seem to be unwilling to spend as freely as they did before the pandemic, with travel during the National Day Golden Week holiday last October coming in below official expectations.

There is some recovery: Domestic tourism revenue reached pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023. Data from Fliggy, an Alibaba-owned travel platform, reports a five-times increase in bookings for Shanghai and a six-times increase in bookings to Beijing, compared to the previous Lunar New Year season.

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