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Visa-free entry to bring more European tourists

Travelers applaud positive change, ease of short-stay visits

By HOU CHENCHEN | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-05-13 09:06
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Foreign tourists walk around on Wednesday near the Palace Museum in the Chinese capital, Beijing. CHINA DAILY

China decided last week to extend the short-stay visa-exemption policy for citizens of 12 countries, of which 11 are European nations, to the end of 2025. This extension underscores the prospects of China-Europe engagement in the years ahead and will bring a fresh wave of European tourists to China, analysts said.

The nation announced a visa-free policy for five European countries-France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain — from Dec 1 of last year to Nov 30 this year, with people from these countries allowed to stay on the mainland for up to 15 days for business, tourism, family trips or transit without a visa.

The visa-free policy was then extended to another six European countries: Switzerland, Ireland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg, from March 14 to Nov 30 to further boost inbound tourism.

During his visit to France last week, President Xi Jinping said that China welcomes visits by more people from France, and will extend the short-stay visa-exemption policy for citizens from 12 countries, including France, to the end of 2025.

"The recent extension of both the time limit and the list of countries brings a positive outlook for the long run. It alleviates concerns among European stakeholders regarding the policy's duration," said Peng Han, chief analyst for tourism media company Travel Daily.

Travel Daily data shows that the total number of inbound tourists from visa-exempt countries in Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand increased by about 2.5-fold year-on-year during the Labor Day holiday. In contrast, inbound tourism from Europe as of this year stood at only 30 percent of 2019 figures.

According to Peng, European operators typically formulate outbound tourism plans for the following year in June and July, and decisions on whether to engage with Chinese products hinge on whether they receive a clear answer in time.

"Will China's visa-free policy for European countries continue next year, or will it be discontinued? The industry has been keeping an eye on long-term China-Europe relations and the continuity of the visa policy," he said.

He added that now that China has given a clear answer on opening its door to Europe through successive policies, it signals to the world the promise of a prosperous future.

Although there has not been a sharp rise in the number of European tour groups coming to China till now, the number of independent travelers indicates the upside of the visa-free policy.

Ctrip data said that on March 14 alone, when the visa-free rules took effect, the number of inbound tourism orders from the six newly-added countries more than doubled compared with last year. The number of orders from Belgium, Hungary and Switzerland tripled.

According to data from tour operator Tongcheng Travel, flight bookings to China from European countries on the first visa-exemption list have shown remarkable growth. Since April, there has been a year-on-year increase of over 150 percent in bookings from France, a 110 percent increase from Germany, and nearly double the growth from Italy.

According to the National Immigration Administration, more than 170,000 international visitors entered China visa-free through Shanghai Pudong International Airport in the first quarter of this year, showing an increase of 23.6 percent year-on-year.

Shanghai, one of the top destinations for European tourists, has prepared itself for a surge in inbound tourism.

"The resumption of international flights, the visa-free policy, and the full recovery of business at Shanghai International Cruise Home Port will contribute to the number of inbound tourists arriving in Shanghai, especially free independent travelers," said Zhou Weihong, deputy general manager of Spring Tour, a travel company in Shanghai.

To accommodate the sudden increase of independent tourists after the implementation of the visa-free policy, tour agencies have designed personalized mini-tour products and city walks in Shanghai. They have also established tourism itineraries covering Shanghai, the Yangtze River Delta and other cities, Zhou said.

Voices from visitors

David Huang, a French national who studied at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, and who now works for a French chocolate company in Beijing, said that he has applied for both student and work visas in the past.

"The student visa requires at least two months of preparations, including submitting various documents. I also spent more than two months preparing for my work visa after graduating from UIBE.My French friends have heard about the visa-free access, and it is indeed a positive change," he said.

Young French travelers avoid countries that have lengthy visa application procedures, he said, adding that being on a limited budget, paying for airfare only to have a visa application rejected makes little financial sense for them.

"My colleagues in global companies find it much simpler to travel. When organizing events that require inviting foreign guests, we shouldn't have to worry about visa processing time. Two-week visa-free access allows people to explore business opportunities in China."

Laura Carbonell, a sales manager in Toledo, which is about 75 kilometers away from the Spanish capital Madrid, said she visited China in November before the visa-free policy was introduced. Even something like how far away an embassy or consulate is from a potential visa applicant's home can influence their travel decisions, she said.

"I really wanted to visit China to enjoy its culture and scenery. However, Spain has only two diplomatic missions, the embassy in Madrid and a consulate in Barcelona. People like me who reside in other cities are forced to travel long distances to apply for a visa."

For European countries not on the visa-free list, the application procedures have been streamlined. China has been simplifying its entry visa procedures worldwide, including canceling appointment requirements and fingerprints for qualified applicants temporarily. Visa fees for travel to China before December from all countries have also been cut by 25 percent, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Chinese embassy in Washington announced the simplification of the tourist visa application process for United States citizens starting from January 1 this year. US citizens can now enter China for tourism purpose without providing roundtrip air tickets, hotel reservations, itineraries and an invitation letter.

"From the implementation of the visa-free policy for six European countries to recent high-level meetings on optimizing inbound tourism payment services, the future looks promising," Peng of Travel Daily said. "The revival of inbound tourism to its previous peak may simply be a matter of time."

While China is sending clear signals of openness, political factors in the West are casting a shadow over cross-border travel. In March the US said it is "taking steps to impose new visa restrictions on multiple Hong Kong officials", without elaborating on the visa measures or the officials targeted.

Last July the US issued a travel warning against China, advising US citizens to "reconsider" whether to travel to the country for "the risk of wrongful detention". Furthermore, the US has long restricted visa applications for Chinese students for "national security" reasons.

The US narrative has had a significant impact on biased perceptions about China in Europe, the US and other countries, said tourism analysts.

"Our travel agencies agree that a trip to China is the best remedy. When European tourists actually visit China, most of them will revise their preconceptions," Peng said.

"With China opening its door, a firsthand experience will expose the falsehoods spread by some Western media."

Kuang Hanying contributed to this story.

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