Hong Kong CNN Business  — 

Chinese cinemas are back in business and selling even more tickets than before the pandemic.

Local box office takings over the start of the Lunar New Year holiday have already surpassed those of the same period in 2019, despite some restrictions on theater occupancy. The increase gives China another lift after it overtook the United States to become the world’s top movie market last year.

It’s further evidence of a robust upswing in the world’s second biggest economy, which managed to dodge a recession in 2020 and ended the year 2.3% larger than when it started.

China’s box office took in about 4.5 billion yuan ($697 million) over the weekend, which included the first three days of the festivities, according to the latest available data from Chinese ticketing platform Maoyan. That represents a 33% jump compared to the same period in 2019, noted analysts at Citi.

China’s box office is off to a “surprisingly strong start,” they wrote in a research note Tuesday, adding that the uptick showed that “demand for movies in physical theaters remains healthy, especially considering the restriction of occupancy rate at 75% still persists [in some cities].”

Shares in some industry players soared Tuesday in Hong Kong. Movie producer Alibaba Pictures, iMax China and Maoyan each jumped by 35%, 31% and 10% respectively. (Markets in mainland China remain closed for the holiday.)

Analysts attributed the strong showing to several factors, starting with a lineup of popular new releases, such as the Chinese films “Detective Chinatown 3” and “Hi, Mom,” which topped the box office over the weekend.

The Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival in China, is the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar — the equivalent of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve combined.

Typically, hundreds of millions of people take the opportunity to travel long distances to visit family. But consumers are looking for more local activities this year as new government measures discourage them from traveling over the break.

Recently, authorities imposed rules that require people returning to rural areas to produce a negative Covid-19 test taken within the previous seven days, and to spend 14 days in “home observation” upon arrival. Some local governments have also added their own, stricter measures.

Overall, movie fans are also probably just excited to get back to cinemas after a “rise of pent-up demand” in recent months, according to the Citi analysts.

That’s good news for a market that was crippled by the coronavirus crisis just a year ago. Last January, the pandemic forced a nationwide shutdown during the Lunar New Year — a time when people are typically flocking to theaters.

Chinese cinemas began reopening last July, a month before the United States.

By the end of this week, China’s box office intake could go much higher. Last month, investment bank China International Capital Corporation predicted it could reach up to 7 billion yuan (almost $1.1 billion) over the holiday period.

Citi analysts, too, predict the trend to continue. “Based on the first [three] days [of] data, we expect the total box office for this Spring Festival to record decent growth compared to 2019,” they wrote.

— CNN’s Hannah Zhang, Nectar Gan, Lily Lee and David Culver contributed to this report.