More needs to be done to draw international tourists
By Ji Jing  ·  2024-01-15  ·   Source: NO.2 JANUARY 11, 2024
A tourist takes photos at Huangshan Mountain in Anhui Province on September 25, 2023 (XINHUA)
About 140 tourists from countries including Singapore and Malaysia arrived in Shanghai on the eve of the New Year, just in time for the holiday celebration.

They watched dragon dances, struck bells at a local temple to pray for good luck and watched light shows, which were all part of the city's New Year countdown events.

Fang Shizhong, Director of the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture and Tourism, told Xinhua News Agency that New Year-themed events in Shanghai have been held since 1989, helping the city to pass on cultural traditions such as eating noodles during the countdown and visiting market fairs.

He said Shanghai is striving to develop itself into a high-end international travel destination and reinforce its reputation as international tourists' "first stop" in China.

This inbound trip marked a new step toward the recovery of China's inbound travel.

Tour guides receive English-language training in Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province, on August 23, 2023 (XINHUA)

Travel facilitation 

The government has unveiled a slew of measures in recent months to stimulate the inbound tourism market. On November 24, 2023, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced a unilateral visa-free policy for ordinary passport holders from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia on a trial basis. Per the policy, holders of ordinary passports from the six countries may enter China without a visa for business, tourism, visiting relatives and friends, and transit for up to 15 days from December 1, 2023 to November 30 this year.

From the day the visa-free policy went into effect, a total of 147,000 visitors from these six countries had entered China without a visa as of January 9, according to the National Immigration Administration (NIA). On January 8 alone, more than 4,300 visitors from these six countries entered China without a visa, more than doubling the number on December 1, 2023. About 70 percent of those arriving with ordinary passports under the visa exemption engaged in tourism and leisure.

After the visa-free policy was implemented, the Nanning port in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region saw an increasing number of inbound tourists. Data from Nanning border control authorities showed that as of December 31, 2023, nearly 2,800 people in 121 travel groups entered China through the port. Beijing saw more than 12,000 inbound visitors last December.

China and Thailand will permanently waive visa requirements for each other's citizens from March, Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin announced on January 2.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced a simplification of its visa application process on September 20, 2023. Visa application forms were made more accessible and user-friendly for applicants. In addition, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin announced on December 8, 2023 a 25-percent reduction of Chinese visa application fee from December 11, 2023 to December 31, 2024.

The NIA has also optimized entry-exit management policies to further facilitate visits to China. China's 72-hour and 144-hour visa-free transit policies have been extended to visitors from 54 countries, Mao Xu, Director of the NIA's Department of Foreigners Management, said during the China International Travel Mart, held in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in November 2023.

Visitors from these countries with transit visa exemptions are allowed to travel or conduct business-related activities in certain areas permitted by port visa authorities, Mao said.

The 144-hour visa-free transit policy applies to some 20 big cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, Nanjing in Jiangsu Province and Chengdu in Sichuan Province. Changsha in Hunan Province, Harbin in Heilongjiang Province and Guilin in Guangxi implement the 72-hour policy.

The NIA announced five new measures to facilitate visits to China at a press conference on January 11, including relaxing visa application requirements and simplifying visa application materials.

Last December, Liang Jianzhang, cofounder and Chairman of China's major online travel agency Group, told online news portal that the implementation of visa free policies is a sound attempt to increase inbound tourism, but compared with other countries, China's visa application process still has great room for improvement. For instance, visa-free policies could be extended to more countries.

Liang added that adjusting visa policies alone is inadequate to boost inbound tourism, and it's more important to improve visitors' ease of travel in China in other ways.

Obstacles and inconveniences 

China resumed issuing all types of visas starting on March 15, 2023, and permitted inbound group tours from March 31 of that year. However, the resumption of inbound travel has been sluggish. According to statistics from China Tourism Academy, travel agencies in China received 477,800 overseas tourists in the first half of 2023, a sharp drop from the 8.56 million tourists recorded in the same period of 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the three-year suspension imposed by COVID-19, it is taking time for overseas travel companies to readjust their allocation of personnel and other resources to sell Chinese tourism products again, said Zhou Zhanfeng, Deputy General Manager of CYTS International Travel Co. Ltd., who is responsible for inbound tourism from North America, South America and German-speaking European countries. He made the remarks in December 2023.

The slow recovery of international flights is another reason for the sluggish inbound tourism market. Qi Qi, Vice Dean of the Management College of Guangzhou Civil Aviation College, told Economic Daily that during the pandemic, airlines laid off staff on a massive scale in China and it is taking time to reemploy and train new staff members; also, many overseas airlines don't have a high motivation to recover their China-bound flight services owing to concerns over market demand and costs.

In addition, efforts should be made to remove obstacles faced by overseas tourists when traveling within China. For instance, Malaysian Zhang Weili traveled to Beijing for business in October 2023 and had several days extra for sightseeing in the city. However, he found that the scenic spots he wanted to visit all required complicated online ticket reservations, and some systems required the use of a Chinese national identity card.

Hotel services for visitors also need to be improved. He Fei, an English-language tour guide in Guilin, told Economic Daily that most high-end hotels in her city had English-speaking staff members before the pandemic, but that many had quit their jobs due to the lack of foreign travelers. She has also found that services for international visitors such as Western food and foreign currency exchange had disappeared at these hotels.

Additionally, across China, not all hotels are licensed to accommodate foreign travelers, and those that do often charge higher prices.

Zhang said he had wanted to experience a home stay in Beijing but when he called a homestay to inquire about room availability, he was told that it was not permitted to receive foreigners.

Sun Mengyang, a professor of tourism marketing at the Tourism College of Beijing Union University, suggested the government should increase the number of homestays and youth hostels permitted to receive foreigners to better meet the needs of young individual international tourists.

Strengthening promotion 

In addition to needing to navigate these inconveniences, overseas visitors also lack understanding of China as a tourist destination.

Ning Guoxin, Vice President of Chinese tourism services company U-Tour, told that China's image as an ancient oriental civilization has been widely circulated in the international tourism market. "However, in addition to an ancient civilization, we also have national parks and magnificent mountains and rivers, which should be presented to overseas visitors too," Ning said.

To woo overseas visitors, many Chinese travel agencies are going overseas to promote their products. Zhou Xiaoguang, General Manager of one such agency Tang Dynasty Tours Co. Ltd. based in Guilin, has recently been busy attending overseas international travel expos to promote his products.

Zhou Xiaoguang added that more emphasis should be placed on promoting Chinese products online. "Like their Chinese peers, young people overseas like browsing short video platforms. Tourism promotion should make use of these platforms to draw more young people."

(Print Edition Title: Remaking Destination China)   

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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