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China tries to lure foreign tourists with expanded visa-free scheme after weak post-pandemic bounce back


By Nectar Gan, CNN

Hong Kong (CNN) — China has struck an agreement with Thailand to permanently waive visa requirements for each other’s citizens from March, the latest in a flurry of attempts by Beijing to lure back foreign tourists amid a struggling economy after years of self-imposed Covid isolation.

The reciprocal visa-free scheme, announced by Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin Tuesday, comes after Thailand in September waived visas for Chinese tourists until this February.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said mutual visa exemptions between China and Thailand “serves the fundamental interests of both peoples.”

“The government departments responsible for the matter are in close communication on the specifics. We look forward to the early implementation of the arrangement,” ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular news briefing Tuesday.

China is the world’s second largest economy, a global manufacturing powerhouse and a vast nation of dizzying geography, rich culture and history that makes it a hugely rewarding place for tourists to explore. But it’s not the easiest country to travel to.

Periods of self-imposed isolation, labyrinthine visa rules, internet restrictions that forbid ubiquitous online tools like Google Maps and – more recently – the dominance of hugely successful but far from foreigner-friendly Chinese e-payment apps have long proved barriers to frictionless travel.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, China’s borders were all but shut for three years. But Beijing now appears to want tourists back.

The agreement with Thailand follows an existing visa-free scheme China has offered to six countries in a bid to boost foreign tourism as its economy struggles to recover.

In November, China announced a trial program to allow visitors from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia to enter visa-free for 15 days.

The policy, which started in December, is set to last 12 months till the end of November this year.

In December, 118,000 travelers from those six nations entered China without a visa under the new policy, the National Immigration Administration said Monday, without providing a breakdown by country.

Over 77% of them were visiting for sightseeing, leisure or business activities, according to the administration.

The visa-free entries accounted for 55% of the total number of visits to China from the six countries, which went up by nearly 30% compared to November, the administration said.

The real effect of the policy remains to be seen, as tourists from countries far away, such as in Europe, typically tend to plan trips to China months in advance. Winters are also especially cold in much of China and so are not typically peak tourist season.

China has also made it easier for American tourists to visit by simplifying the visa application process.

From January 1, travelers from the United States no longer need to submit proof for round-trip air tickets, hotel reservations, their itinerary or an invitation letter to apply for a tourist visa, according to the Chinese Embassy in the United States.

China has been seeking to woo more international travelers as part of its broader efforts to boost a sluggish economy facing numerous serious headwinds.

In August, it dropped all pre-entry Covid-19 test requirements for inbound passengers, offered business travelers the option to get visas on arrival and exempted visitors from some countries from fingerprint collection.

Last summer, WeChat and Alipay, China’s two biggest payment apps that have come to dominate everyday life, finally allowed visitors to link their foreign credit cards, enabling them to book taxis, ride the subway and pay for restaurants, hotels and shops across the near-cashless country.

But the return of international travelers to China has been slow and remains well below pre-pandemic levels.

In the first half of 2023, Chinese immigration authorities recorded a total of 8.4 million entries and exits by foreign nationals, less than 30% of the number recorded during the same period in 2019, according to data released by the National Immigration Administration.

In the third quarter of the year, the number of entries and exits by foreigners rose to 8 million, still half the level from the same period in 2019.

Chinese travel agencies have witnessed an even more staggering drop in foreign tourists.

According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Chinese travel agencies received 477,800 foreign tourists in the first six months of 2023, accounting for just 5.58% of the same period in 2019. The ministry has not released data since the second half of last year.

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