December 4, 2023
BEIJING – Since March 2023, when China started to issue tourist visas again, business has picked up for Beijing tour guide Vivie Pan, who organises small group tours for English-speaking visitors.
But the numbers are nowhere near the levels of 2018 and 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic. Back then, she received up to three or four bookings a day, and had to rope in other guides to help.
“For this year, I have enough bookings only for myself. I was quite busy from June until November almost every day, with three or four rest days per month, but still there’s no comparison to 2019,” said Ms Pan, who drove part-time for private car-hire company Didi to make ends meet during the pandemic.
The overseas tourists are coming back, but their main purpose is not sightseeing or leisure – it’s usually business or visiting friends.”
In the first half of 2023, travel agencies received 477,800 inbound tourists, compared with more than 8.56 million for the same period in 2019, according to statistics released by the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
The sluggish recovery has been on the government’s radar – it has implemented a series of measures to ease potential pain points of visitors. For instance, in August, the authorities did away with the need for travellers to have a negative Covid-19 test to enter the country.
The latest move came on Nov 24, when China unilaterally announced a year-long visa-free policy for visitors from France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia from Dec 1.
This saves them the hassle of filling up pages of forms that include planned itinerary and travel history.
On Dec 1, more than 2,000 people from these six countries entered China – an increase of 12.5 per cent over the previous day, said China’s immigration authorities.
Industry players have welcomed the move, but noted that difficulties remain in persuading tourists to come back. These include limited availability of flights and tightened purse strings, as well as geopolitical tensions that affect perceptions of China.
Veteran industry observer Oliver Sedlinger, who is chief executive of tourism consultancy Sedlinger & Associates, said a short-term challenge is flight availability, noting that China’s international flights have recovered to only about 57 per cent since the start of 2023.
“The recent new visa policies introduced by China are a very smart move and will make travelling there easier,” he said, adding that this would likely provide a strong boost to visitor numbers from these markets.
Dr Liu Simin, vice-president of the tourism branch of the China Society for Futures Studies research institute, likewise said the move would spur growth.
But he pointed out that the major source countries before the pandemic, such as the United States, Japan and South Korea, were not included in the visa-free policy.
“Although the pandemic is over, the negative effects of pandemic controls have yet to completely disappear. Foreigners may not yet be fully aware of the situation in China today,” he said.
Western countries have also, in general, experienced inflation after the pandemic and consequently a decrease in disposable incomes, with less to spend on travelling, he added.
Geopolitics is yet another factor.
Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian of the National University of Singapore said the squabbles China has with other countries are a dampener on tourist visits from there.
For one thing, China-Japan relations hit a rough patch after Beijing strongly criticised Tokyo for releasing treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant, starting from August 2023.
Adding to the problem are China’s exit bans and detentions of individuals associated with particular states, as well as raids on business, said Prof Chong, who specialises in Chinese foreign policy.
For example, Chinese investigations into US-related firms earlier in 2023 spooked the business community.
The authorities had visited the offices of Capvision, Bain & Company and Mintz Group, in what was seen as a crackdown on consulting and due diligence firms.
Memories of the sudden closure of borders and the zero-Covid policy are also relatively fresh, said Prof Chong, and this is reinforced by recent reports of an outbreak of an unidentified disease with flu-like symptoms in China.
“For leisure travellers, the world is a big place with many attractive sites, many of which offer better value and comfort than the PRC,” he said, referring to China’s official name, the People’s Republic of China.
Still, some industry players are already looking forward to 2024.
A spokeswoman for Trip.com Group, a major travel service conglomerate headquartered in Shanghai, said demand for travel to China is expected to rise in the near future. She said Trip.com data showed that global search results for inbound travel to China increased in the third quarter by nearly 40 per cent compared with the previous quarter.
Some believe that more publicity could be the answer to raising tourist numbers.
Mr Tang Gang, president of Chongqing-based Century Cruises, said “vigorous promotion and publicity” is needed to further stimulate demand, adding that his Yangtze river cruise firm served tourists mainly from Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand in 2023.
Ms Pan, the tour guide, believes the outlook for 2024 will be better.
“I’ve already received a handful of clients for March, as well as a few inquiries. There are also a few coming from Malaysia and Singapore in December,” she said.
“But I’m sure it will not be as buoyant as before the end of 2019.”