Tourism growth in China slowed during this year's major Spring Festival holiday, indicating overall sentiment around the economy has yet to turn around.
Chinese New Year is typically spent visiting relatives, but as one of China's few major public holiday seasons, it has increasingly become a popular time to travel. This year, the work holiday officially ran the first full week of February. Tuesday, the 15th day from the start of the Lunar New Year, marked the traditional end of the celebrations.
The closely watched Chinese consumer has become a significant force in overseas travel.
An increasing number of merchants overseas have adopted Chinese mobile pay, while many retailers have employed Mandarin-speaking staff. Within China, economic slowdown and uncertainty around issues such as the U.S.-China trade tensions have already put some pause on big-ticket purchases.
Car sales fell for a seventh straight month in January, data this week showed. The auto sector — a major part of the Chinese economy — is watched as a barometer on how much consumers are willing to spend.
The latest travel data around the Spring Festival show the Chinese consumer is generally still willing to spend — but on a smaller scale.
Official domestic travel data from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism recorded 415 million visits within the country during the holiday, an increase of 7.6 percent from a year ago. That's lower than a growth of 12.1 percent in 2018.
Revenues from domestic tourism also increased this year — but at a slower pace of 8.2 percent to 513.9 billion yuan ($76.4 billion). In comparison, tourism revenue last year grew 12.6 percent from its 2017 number, data showed.
The Spring Festival numbers are decent, especially given pressures such as the slowing economy, Xin Chen, China tourism analyst at UBS Securities, said in a Mandarin phone interview translated by CNBC. He added there is some impact on high-end travel, but it is limited.
Chen also noted that spending on travel is relatively less expensive than purchasing luxury goods, and that a worsening economy with increasing unemployment would not reflect in tourism figures until six months, or a year later. But he thinks the economy could pick up in the second half of this year.
China's smaller cities also showed rapid growth, both as a source of tourists and a destination, according to a separate report from Chinese travel booking site Ctrip.
"Unprecedented" enthusiasm for travel from county-level cities marked the biggest difference between this year and last year's Spring Festival, Ctrip said in a Mandarin-language report. The company said the number of tourists from the counties of Heshan, Fogang and Huidong — all in the southern province of Guangdong — each reported year-on-year growth of five or six times.
Official numbers for overseas travel during the Chinese New Year were not as clear about the actual rate of change.
It wasn't clear at what pace outbound travel during the Spring Festival grew in previous years. The immigration administration did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for historical data, which was not available on its website.
Some state and media reports last year cited historical data from a separate government research group, the China Tourism Academy, which said its figures included information not comparable to the immigration administration's data.
However, Ctrip noted the number of countries Chinese tourists visited during the holiday this year increased to 97 from 82. Spending per outbound traveler from Beijing and Shanghai was well over 8,000 yuan, the company said in a report.