By Amanda Kaiser
with contributions from Tiffany Ap
 on January 12, 2017

It is shaping up to be a record-breaking year for international travel over the Chinese New Year period.

The number of Chinese travelers heading abroad over the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday is currently up 9.8 percent over last year’s numbers, according to flight reservation data analyzed by travel intelligence firm ForwardKeys. Thailand, Japan and Taiwan have emerged as the top three destinations for the holiday period.

“Globally the number of international Chinese air travellers is ahead by 9.8% vs. 2016’s equivalent period,” ForwardKeys said in its latest research about the upcoming weeklong holiday period kicking up Jan. 27. “East Asian countries are the hot spot for Chinese tourists and Europe makes a comeback as a star destination after last year’s security concerns.”

Chinese travelers, 66 percent of whom hail from the first-tier cities of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, are favoring Asian destinations over the holiday period.

Although Taiwan was named one of the top three destinations for Chinese travelers, ForwardKeys said the country has seen a 12.4 percent drop in flight bookings over last year. That slide is the continuation of a downward trend that started last year, which observers have attributed to a flare-up in political tensions between Taipei and Beijing.

At the same time bookings to Europe over the Chinese New Year period are up 68.5 percent. The top five destinations are Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and France. Just two years ago, France and Spain were on opposite sides of the ranking with France in the top spot and Spain in last place.

Elsewhere, new travel destinations are emerging for Chinese consumers. Flight bookings to Africa and the Middle East are up 67.1 percent and Latin America are gaining 62.9 percent, ForwardKeys said. The United States and Canada are seeing more modest growth of 3.3 percent.

For sure, Asia watchers will be monitoring the contentious political situation between Taiwan and mainland China and its impact on tourism and retail.

From January to October of last year, mainland Chinese visitor arrivals to Taiwan fell 11.74 percent to 3.09 million, a decline not easily shrugged off given that it constitutes up 35 percent of its total tourist base. In October, the most recent month for which government data is available, mainland China visitation slumped 44.3 percent from the year before, in what should’ve been one of the biggest travel periods of the year due to the Golden Week holiday observed in mainland China.

President-elect Donald Trump fanned the China-Taiwan flames in December, when he broke with decades-long U.S. foreign policy and took a phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing Wen and later said he might not respect the longstanding “one-China policy” that considers Taiwan part of China. The U.S. does not maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be a breakaway province.