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Chinese tourism growth slows as overseas travel loses its luster

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XIAOSHAN AIRPORT, HANGZHOU, ZHEJIANG PROVINCE, CHINA: An outbound tourist group is waiting for check-in in front of the counter of China Customs. Chinese nationals have become the largest number of foreign tourists visiting other countries in 2015 as the number of outbound visitors crossed 120 million, registering an 11 million increase from last year.

Zhang Peng | LightRocket | Getty Images

BEIJING — The rapid growth of Chinese tourism took a bit of a breather during the latest week-long National Day holiday, government data indicate.

The seven-day vacation from Oct. 1 to Oct. 7 is dubbed “Golden Week” and is one of the few major government-mandated holidays in a country where personal vacation days are few. This year’s National Day was particularly significant domestically since it revolved around massive celebrations on Oct. 1 for the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party’s rule.

Chinese tourist sites received 782 million visits during the holiday, up well over 7% from last year’s 726 million, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. But, that’s slower than reported growth of more than 9% in 2018, and down from a 10% increase in 2017.

Retail and food and beverage sales from Oct. 1 to Oct. 7 grew 8.5% to 1.52 trillion yuan ($212.7 billion), according to the Ministry of Commerce. While a solid figure, that’s a slower pace than the Commerce Ministry’s claims of nearly 10% or higher growth for previous years.

“Golden Week data point to a slowdown,” Ting Lu, Nomura’s chief China economist, said in the title of a report distributed Wednesday. “As China’s economy has become increasingly reliant on consumption to drive its growth, data from ‘golden weeks’ have become a good barometer of China’s consumption growth trend.”

Chinese authorities are trying to boost domestic consumption in an effort to support economic growth. Shortly after a major government meeting in March, authorities announced the May 1 Labor Day holiday would be extended by two days by swapping those working days with weekends, as is typical in China.

Tourism growth slowed during another golden week this year, the Lunar New Year holiday in February. Official numbers for overseas travel during that period were not clear about the actual rate of change.

Less travel overseas?

Similarly, for the latest National Day holiday, different official data sources painted a different picture of overseas travel.

At best, a few million more Chinese went abroad than last year. At worst, outbound trips dropped more than 10%.

Publicly available estimates for 2018 National Day overseas travel hover just under 7 million. This year, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism said it expected such outbound tourists topped 7 million.

On the other hand, the National Immigration Administration said in an online post Monday that for the first six days of the holiday, the border entries and exits of mainland Chinese residents dropped 15.1% from a year ago to 6.07 million.

Even considering the Hong Kong government’s report of a 50% drop in tourist visitors amid local unrest, overall entries and exits tracked by China’s immigration administration fell 11% to 10.45 million.

But in the first half of the year, Chinese outbound travel did increase 14% to 81.29 million trips, according to figures from the China Tourism Academy.

When contacted by CNBC, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism would not explain the discrepancy and stood by its publicly released data. The National Immigration Administration did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

“Overseas tourism, the booming consumption market are more rational,” the culture and tourism ministry said in a section header in its report on Golden Week travel this year. That’s according to a CNBC translation of the Chinese-language text.

The ministry’s report added that compared with previous years, Chinese traveling overseas sought relaxation more than shopping, and booking volume increased by more than double digits for lesser-known destinations such as Croatia and Slovakia.

Vacation spending

Regardless, the Chinese that did venture overseas last week spent more than they did last year using mobile payment app Alipay. The company, which is run by Alibaba-affiliate Ant Financial, said average total spend per user increased 15% to about 2,500 ($350).

Chinese tourists to Japan, the most popular destination for individual travel on the Ctrip booking platform, increased by 30% with an average spend of 6,879 yuan, according to the company. Ctrip noted in a report that popular culture and easier visa policies helped spur the increase in travel, which is rare for such a mature destination like Japan.

Domestically, the top 10 cities whose residents spent the most on National Day travel within China spent at least 3,000 yuan, with Shenzhen topping the list at 3,324 yuan, according to Ctrip.

Not all travel during the holiday required major expenditure, either. Beijing News reported that the star-shaped Beijing Daxing International Airport, which opened a few days before the holiday, received about 90,000 visits a day on Oct. 2, 3 and 4, while a daily average of 4,852 passengers left the transit hub.

Watch: China’s new Beijing Daxing International Airport opens



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What to watch for in May’s health care jobs numbers

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A view outside Bellevue hospital during the coronavirus pandemic on May 1, 2020 in New York City.

Noam Galai | Getty Images

As hospitals, physician practices and dental offices have reopened for non-emergency care over the last month, it seems a good bet that health-care workers furloughed during March and April will be among those most likely to be recalled by their employers, but the May jobs numbers on Friday may not show much of a snap-back. 

“We expect the education and health services industries to recover quicker than will the overall labor market this year,” analysts at Moody’s Investors Services wrote in research note Wednesday, adding “next year, these industries will likely add about 370,000 jobs, or 11% of total private-sector jobs created.”

While private employers added 166,000 education jobs last month, according to payroll processing firm ADP’s May employment report, it was a different story in health care. The private sector shed another 333,000 health care jobs in May, bringing losses over the last three-months to more than 2.4 million.

Dental jobs could see May bounce 

Dentistry saw the biggest employment losses in the health care sector care in April, shedding more than 500,000 jobs, but preliminary data from the American Dental Association show the dental sector could see a healthy bounce back in the May jobs report. 

By last week, 90% of dental practices had reopened, up from 65% in mid-May. More than three out of four practices report paying their staff fully, with patient volumes at about 52% of pre-Covid levels by the end of the month. 

“All of all of my predictions are turning out to be overly bearish. I’d expected a slower recovery and slower rebound in patient volume, and slower bounce back in hiring,” said Marko Vujicic ADA chief economist and vice president.

Slower recovery

The vast majority of physician practices had reopened by the end of last month, as states lifted the moratorium on non-emergency care, but doctors continue to feel the financial strain of the pandemic shutdown. Some 95% of practices have resumed seeing patients in the office, but about half of primary care doctors surveyed by the Larry A. Green Center last week said that the volume of visits remained down more than 50% from pre-Covid levels. 

Nearly 28% of mostly small practices surveyed had skipped or deferred clinician salaries by month’s end, while more than 35% of practices had laid off or furloughed staff. Just over one-in-five said that bills for telehealth visits had been denied. The full results of the survey will be published Friday.

I think it’s going to be a hard and slow recovery … those who close due to lack of payment may not be able to return. I think what we are seeing is a permanent shrinking of the primary care platform,” said Rebecca Etz, associate professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-director of the Larry A Green Center.

The situation is not much better for physician practices that fall under a hospital system.

“The 60% employed by hospitals and health systems are likely to be vulnerable to prolonged hiring freezes,” said Etz, noting that 11% of physician practices reported that they had rescinded job offers to incoming medical residents.

Hospitals slow to rehire 

In April, the hospital sector cut nearly 135,000 jobs, as patient volumes and medical care revenues plunged during the national Covid shelter-in-place order, and health care facilities across the country postponed virtually all non-emergency procedures.

Over the last month, health systems have seen a rebound in demand for rescheduling postponed elective surgical procedures, but overall volumes have remained well below pre-March levels.

Through mid-May in-patient volumes were down about 20%, but emergency department visits were still down 40% from late February, according to research from health care division of financial payments firm TransUnion.

Hospitals around the country have ramped up advertising and community outreach to assure people it’s safe to come back to their facilities, but they continue to see patients putting off care.  At the same time, new social distancing and coronavirus disinfecting procedures will also hamper their ability to handle patient volumes at pre-Covid levels.  

Hospitals are rescheduling elective surgeries but worry about demand after the backlog is cleared

“The ones we talk to are being extremely mindful of not jumping the gun in terms of necessarily bringing everybody back immediately,” said James Bohnsack, chief strategy officer of TransUnion Healthcare. “They’re having to be mindful and kind of rethink their strategies around expenses overall, which is mostly driven, as you can imagine by the staffing.”

Top of mind for many hospital executives is that the recovery in patient volumes over the summer could be short-lived.  Most executives anticipate a significant second wave of coronavirus later this year, according to research from consulting firm LEK, and two-thirds of hospital leaders expect that they will have to cut back on non-Covid care once again when that wave hits next winter. 



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China stocks up food, oil as coronavirus spurs fears about shortages

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A customer wearing face mask buys flour at a supermarket on May 12, 2020 in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province of China.

Zhang Yun | China News Service | Getty Images

China has been building up its food and energy stockpile this year, taking advantage of slumping crude oil prices even before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted supplies.

The world’s second largest economy, which has limited arable land, is facing pressure to shore up its food supplies as prices for food started ticking higher last year, prior to the virus outbreak.

Lockdowns and movement restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus have triggered transportation and logistics bottlenecks.

Those blockages have highlighted the vulnerability of global supply chains, and fears of food shortages have come to the forefront of countries, both in developed and emerging economies.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It’s driving policy in China currently. Fits well with those hardliners that want to rebuild food reserves.

Arlan Suderman

chief commodities economist at INTL FCStone

Consumers in China are worried about further repercussions from the pandemic as it continues to spread globally.

“People there (in China) are panicked that coronavirus will eventually shut down the world’s ports, making it impossible for them to import,” said Arlan Suderman, chief commodities economist for INTL FCStone in a tweet on Monday. “As such, they are hoarding supplies now while they are cheap and available.”

 

“Fear is a powerful motivator. It’s driving policy in China currently. Fits well with those hardliners that want to rebuild food reserves,” he added.

Food prices surge

China is the world’s largest consumer of pork, a staple protein for the country.

In the first four months of the year, meat imports in China rose 82% compared to a year ago. These include pork, beef and poultry.

“We expect food stockpiling to continue especially in cities exposed to logistic disruption. The confluence of expected food price increases alongside an economic contraction and rising unemployment will push up the risk of civil unrest,” said Kaho Yu, senior Asia risk analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a consultancy.

Already, food inflation in the country has been ticking higher.

Last Tuesday, China announced that food prices rose 14.8% in April from a year ago. Even though it was lower than the 18% increase in March, it was still at a high level.

Pork prices rose almost 97% in April in what has been a persistent trend since early 2019 due to the African swine fever epidemic in pigs that decimated China’s hog herds.

In comparison, non-food prices rose just 0.4% in April, official government data showed.

A worker inspects chickens at a poultry farm in Beijing, China.

Hundreds of millions of chickens at risk of being wiped out with much of China locked down due to virus

Soybean supplies are particularly vulnerable to supply shocks as China, the top importer of the commodity, needs the oilseed to make animal feed and cooking oil.

In April, China’s soybean imports fell 12% from a year earlier, customs data showed, due to bad weather causing the delay of cargoes from top supplier Brazil.

As for rice, China is the world’s largest producer of the staple grain with most of its supplies being consumed domestically.

Even so, concerns about food security of the staple grain have led to panic buying and spurred the state to acquire more stocks from the market for its national reserve.

In April, Chinese authorities assured the population that it was stepping up state buying of rice and that there were enough stocks, state news agency Xinhua reported.

“We expect China to continue stockpiling crops to ensure sufficient supply over the next six months by scouring the globe for available supplies,” said Yu in a recent report.

The consultancy puts China in its “high risk” category in terms of food import security, which means that its food imports risk being subjected to disruption.

Crude oil reserve building

Likewise, China has been building up its crude oil stockpile, and went on a buying spree in the first quarter of this year, data show.

Although crude oil imports fell in April compared to a year ago, they still rose from March. But analysts say limited storage facilities could put a cap on imports.

China is expected to continue importing crude to fill its reserves taking advantage of lower oil prices.

Lei Sun

senior consultant at Wood Mackenzie

“Major crude oil importers such as China have been known to build their strategic reserves when prices are low, as seen in previous oil price routs,” Lei Sun, senior consultant at Wood Mackenzie, said in a March report. “China is expected to continue importing crude to fill its reserves taking advantage of lower oil prices.” 

However, the country has less room to import than it did in the last two years, due to limitations in storage capacity, he said.

As supply lines continue to be disrupted due to the coronavirus outbreak, Yu at Verisk Maplecroft said he expects Beijing to double down on building more storage capacity, on top of energy development at home.

“Energy is also core to the country’s economic engine. Throughout the pandemic, Beijing has been prioritising maintaining a stable coal supply with an eye on power generation for industrial activities,” said Yu. “We also expect Beijing to speed up the resumption of large scale energy infrastructure projects.”

Putting food and energy first

Food and energy security have always been important for China, but the pandemic has underscored these concerns.

In April, President Xi Jinping spoke about food and energy supply security several times, noted Yu.

In the same month, state agencies — such as China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration and other ministries — issued a policy notice aimed at ensuring adequate food production, storage capacity and logistics, Yu noted. 

Also in April, China’s National Energy Agency issued a list of policy areas to focus on this year. They included power supply, grid networks, oil and gas infrastructure, and coal projects.

The developments underscored the government’s concerns, he said.

“Both Xi’s rhetoric and associated policy announcements from various ministries show how food and energy security are high on the government’s agenda,” said Yu.

“All of them are aiming to avoid potential pandemic-linked supply shortages and to increase self-sufficiency of critical resources over the long term. The COVID-19’s disruption on trade and industrial activities has reignited Chinese leadership’s long-running concerns over resource security.”



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Microsoft, UnitedHealth offer companies free app to screen employees for coronavirus

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UnitedHealth Group and Microsoft’s ProtectWell coronavirus symptom screener

UnitedHealth Group and Microsoft

UnitedHealth Group and Microsoft are offering companies a coronavirus screening app called ProtectWell that provides a daily symptom screener to help clear employees to go to work or direct them to be tested if they are at risk for infection.

As U.S. companies struggle to bring employees back under stringent new safety requirements, health-care and tech companies are rolling out new services that go beyond temperature checks. The apps are designed to help protect the safety of employees returning to work as well as to entice customers to return to restaurants and stores by ensuring wait staff and clerks are infection-free.

Microsoft and UnitedHealth, which use the program for their own workers, are now offering the service to U.S. employers free of charge. The program will include resources and guidelines on Covid-19 testing schedules for different workers within an organization, based on their potential on-the-job exposure to the virus.

“A worker in a nursing home, for example, … we would want to be doing the symptom checking every single day, and then be put into a testing schedule that allows them to get tested, anywhere from three to… every five days,” said Ken Ehlert, UnitedHealth Group chief scientific officer. “Different folks in the population need different levels of testing.”

The ProtectWell app provides the worker with his or her test results and notifies the employer when a worker tests positive for the coronavirus.

“When we think about the broader perspective of enabling a safe return to work, it’s imperative that employers also have that ability to be able to … act on that information, so that they can ensure that the workplace is safe” said Dr. David Rhew, Microsoft chief global medical officer. 

The app will not provide tracking and contact tracing information, and while Microsoft’s health-care bot will drive the symptom screening within the app, UnitedHealth will maintain control over the health data itself. Under occupational health and safety rules, workers’ personal health information needs to be kept separate from personnel records.

“The challenge is about data management — how we aggregate testing information, safely permission it to reach the right people, use it to make workplace decisions,” said Dr. Rajaie Batniji, co-founder of benefits firm Collective Health, which launched its own Covid back-to-work service this week.

Testing reliability

Batniji says a testing program, when combined with social distancing and disinfecting practices, can help businesses lower the risk of a workplace outbreak to less than 5%.

The firm’s Collective Go service is partnering with Bay Area start-ups Genalyte, Color and Everlywell to provide employers with on-site and at-home molecular testing for current infections, as well as antibody tests that can show whether a person was previously infected.

“We’re seeing improvement … with regard to accuracy and scalability” of the antibody tests, said Batniji, but he adds that the firm is continually assessing the latest data on the reliability of various Covid-19 tests.

On Thursday ,the Food and Drug Administration raised concerns about the accuracy of Abbott Labs’ ID Now rapid Covid-19 tests, after a study from New York University suggested that the test resulted in a high number of false negatives.

A box containing a 5-minute test for COVID-19 from Abbott Laboratories is pictured during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 30, 2020.

FDA issues warning on accuracy of Abbott’s rapid coronavirus test after study finds false negatives

UnitedHealth’s Ehlert notes that availability could also be an issue for some employers to adopt wide-scale testing, so it will be important to prioritize testing programs for workers who are most at risk of getting sick.

“We are working within the capacity of trying to get the best tests available, make sure we have enough of them, and prioritize them,” he said.

Race to provide testing  

With the sharp drop in nonemergency diagnostic screening and testing due to the pandemic, new workplace programs could provide a much-needed boost to diagnostic testing firms and hospitals as they try rebound from the financial disruption caused by delayed procedures over the last two months.

New Orleans-based Ochsner Health System set up its own lab for processing Covid testing for its patients and staff and is now working with area employers to help them establish testing and health monitoring programs. CEO Warner Thomas says the return-to-work service will allow the hospital to redeploy clinicians who have been idled, while postponed elective surgery and other procedures are beginning to be rescheduled.

Quest Diagnostics CEO Stephen Rusckowski told analysts last month that reopening presents “substantial opportunities” for providing to testing for employers and municipalities “for overall surveillance within the population and returning to work.”

LabCorp CEO Adam Schechter told CNBC that different parts of the economy will require varying levels of testing to bring workers back and has been in talks with employers to provide on and off-site screening for workers, including temperature checks.

Labcorp CEO Adam Schechter talks as commercial lab executives and government Health officials meet with Vice President Mike Pence on the Coronavirus crisis at the White House on March 4, 2020 in Washington,DC.

LabCorp CEO says the US doesn’t need 2 million coronavirus tests per day to reopen

It’s unclear just how much employers will actually lean into widespread workforce coronavirus testing, but for many American workers it could become a job requirement while the threat of the pandemic remains, which could be for the foreseeable future.

“As a doctor, if I wasn’t up to date on necessary vaccinations or screening, it’s considered a safety issue for patients and co-workers,” said Batniji. “This is a first for many (and) a cultural change for most Americans.”  

Correction: This story has been revised to correct the attribution of a quotation from a Microsoft official. The quote was from Dr. David Rhew, Microsoft’s global chief medical officer. 



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