China is world’s second-largest economy, but its passport is ranked 63rd. Are things looking up?

Over the last few months, it has become easier for Chinese citizens to visit South-east Asia as visa-waiver programmes were rolled out to draw Chinese tourists.

Aw Cheng Wei

Aw Cheng Wei

The Straits Times


The Chinese passport currently trails at least 60 other countries in terms of access, based on an index by Henley & Partners, a global investment migration consultancy. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

December 22, 2023

BEIJING – When bank executive Zhou Wei heard he would no longer need to apply for a visa to visit Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand come early 2024, he earmarked them as his next possible holiday destinations.

He rejoiced at the news because “it’s the feeling of being respected”, Mr Zhou told The Straits Times.

“For too long, I’ve felt that the privilege of holding a Chinese passport does not measure up to our standing as the world’s second-largest economy,” said the 36-year-old Beijing resident.

“Why should I spend money in countries where I don’t feel as welcome?”

Over the last few months, it has become easier for Chinese citizens to visit South-east Asia as visa-waiver programmes were rolled out to again draw Chinese tourists – the world’s largest source of visitors before 2019 – after strict measures to curb the pandemic were lifted in late 2022.

Malaysia and Thailand announced on Nov 27 and Sept 25 respectively that visa requirements had been waived for China passport holders for a limited period.

Singapore announced on Dec 7 it would exempt Chinese travellers from needing visas for stays of under 30 days, while China extended visa-free status for Singaporeans from 15 to 30 days. This reciprocal arrangement will kick in from early 2024 and has no term limit.

Finance executive Feng Chao, 37, who visited Singapore and Malaysia in May for five days, sees visa-free status as an incentive for repeat visits.

“I’ve been looking forward to a return visit to the region with my parents because we really enjoyed our last visit, which was also our first time there,” she said. “I was going to take them to Changbaishan in north-east China in the summer but now I will take them to Singapore.”

Operations executive Guan Jiajie, 26, plans to ring in the new year in Bangkok with friends before heading to one of the Thai islands to relax. If not for the visa waiver, he would probably have chosen to holiday in Sanya on Hainan island in China.

“I’m a bit of a last-minute planner as I only make hotel and plane bookings probably one week before my trip, because it’s so convenient to travel within mainland China,” he said.

“But with the visa waiver, I’m really looking forward to Thailand. The beaches in South-east Asia are really beautiful, and the warm weather will be a nice escape from the winter in Beijing.”

The Chinese passport currently trails at least 60 other countries in terms of access, based on an index by Henley & Partners, a global investment migration consultancy.

Updated quarterly, the index uses historical data of 18 years as well as data from the International Air Transport Association. It ranks 199 passports and is considered a standard reference tool for assessing how a passport fares in global mobility.

Singapore topped the power list in July, replacing Japan, which took the pole position in 2021. The two countries have been competing neck and neck in the ranking in recent years, with Japan taking the second spot in the latest ranking. The Singapore passport allows easy access to 193 countries and territories, beating Japan’s 192, the index showed.

The Chinese passport, ranked 63rd just below Papua New Guinea, gives visa-free entry into 83 countries and territories. The United States, the world’s largest economy and China’s biggest rival, is seventh, with its travellers welcomed with open arms in 187 countries and territories.

Dr Liu Simin, vice-president of the tourism branch of the China Society for Futures Studies research institute in Beijing, said China has not enjoyed widespread visa-free status because “some countries have reservations about the sheer number of Chinese tourists and the possibility of them overstaying”.

Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand must have looked at how tourism from China has benefited their economies and the quality of Chinese tourists they have received so far to make the decision to allow visa waivers, he added.

“I believe more countries will follow and allow mutual visa-free arrangements in the future,” he said.

Mr Chris Zou, a 31-year-old real estate agent in Beijing, said overstayers can be a problem other countries hope to avoid.

“China’s development is still very uneven, and even though we have world-class cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, there are many who would still go to other countries to work illegally for better opportunities.”

Furthermore, China is “so big”, said Mr Zou. “What happens if just one-tenth of us decide to visit a particular country? The place would be swarmed.”

In 2019, mainland Chinese took 155 million outbound trips, amounting to US$255 billion (S$339 billion) in travel spending, according to global consultancy McKinsey. Only 10 per cent of China’s 1.4 billion population have passports, Chinese state media previously reported.

While it was hoped that Chinese tourists would begin travelling overseas again in 2023, the response has been underwhelming so far, given their weakened spending power after three years of lockdown and the country’s sluggish economic recovery.

A list on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website showed that 19 countries and regions have mutual visa-exemption agreements with China, with most allowing stays of up to 30 days. Most of these countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Seychelles, are in the Middle East and Africa and are part of President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.

Countries that grant unilateral visa-free status to China include Antigua, Morocco and Mozambique.

In November, China offered citizens of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia visa-free stays for up to 15 days between Dec 1, 2023 and Nov 30, 2024 as part of a one-year trial to boost its tourism industry and attract foreign investment to spur its flagging economy. It received 2,029 visitors from these six countries on the first day of the visa waiver.

As for the visa waivers by Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, Mr Zhou, the bank executive, said: “I really hope this is the start of more visa-free agreements with other countries.”

According to media reports in early December, Indonesia is considering whether to waive travel visas for the Chinese.

Malaysia’s visa waiver will last until Dec 31, 2024, while Thailand’s waiver will end on Feb 29, 2024. While China has lifted visa requirement for Malaysian travellers under the one-year trial, it does not have a similar arrangement for Thai travellers.

Travel websites and Ctrip said the search volume for Singapore on their platforms rose by 80 per cent in the hour after the announcement of the waiver on Dec 7, compared with the hour before. Flight ticket searches went up 90 per cent and hotel searches increased by 50 per cent.

Searches for travel to Malaysia between Nov 27 – the day of the announcement – and Nov 30 grew 236 per cent, compared with the same period the week before.

Bookings, including flights and hotel stays, from mainland China to Thailand so far in 2023 have grown by 880 per cent compared with 2022. Between July and September 2023, booking volumes went up by 23 per cent compared with the previous quarter.

Media executive Nathan Xu, 28, said that the latest changes will help “correct unfairness between the mainland Chinese passport and Hong Kong passport”.

Hong Kong is governed under China’s “one country, two systems” policy, but Hong Kong passport holders are granted visa exemptions to 167 countries, compared with mainland China’s 83. Hong Kongers can already stay in Singapore without a visa for up to 30 days.

Mr Xu, who lives in Shenzhen, said that he often travels with his Hong Kong friends to Bangkok and Singapore, but “only me and a couple of my other mainland Chinese friends need visas to go to Singapore”.

Mr Zhou, the bank executive, sees the “Sin-Ma-Thai” visa waivers as a nod to China’s development over the past few decades, including how the quality of its tourists has also improved.

In the early 2010s, bad behaviour of Chinese tourists, including cases of public urination and defecation, shouting in public areas and smoking in air-conditioned rooms, was widely reported in mainstream media both in China and overseas.

The backlash prompted the central government to issue a series of guidelines teaching Chinese tourists how to behave when they are overseas. For example, a 64-page booklet in 2013 included advice on not picking their noses, not forcing locals to take photos for them and not trying to get refunds for food.

“When I was younger, about 15 years ago, we were taught to behave properly when we travel overseas. Then, there was a lot of negative news about the bad behaviour of Chinese tourists, especially how they would spit everywhere and treat other countries like their own,” Mr Zhou said.

But the quality of Chinese tourists has really improved over time, and we “hope to show the world that we have become more cultured”.

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