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Inbound tourism recovers fast from pandemic

China Daily | November 30, 2023


Tourists wait to pass through immigration at Beijing's Capital International Airport. LI XIN/XINHUA

Beijing tour guide Shi Jinjie had a hectic week in the middle of this month.

With more than 10 years' experience in serving inbound travelers to the city, he welcomed some 60 such arrivals from the United States and a total of 12 from Germany and Indonesia.

"We put in a lot of extra hours during the week, averaging more than 12 hours of work each day," he said.

Since the start of this year, the number of inbound tourists to the Chinese mainland from overseas and regions such as Hong Kong and Macao has risen significantly, boosting Shi's business. He now leads a team of dozens of tour guides offering services in languages that include English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese and Korean.

He has even higher expectations for the future thanks to a series of policy support measures. The Foreign Ministry announced late this month that China will grant unilateral visa-free entry for up to 15 days to travelers holding passports issued by France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia.

In response, Malaysia has published a visa-free policy for up to 30 days for Chinese travelers, which will take effect on Friday.

The trial policy will be in effect for one year from Dec. 1. Citizens of the five European countries and Malaysia can enter China without a visa for business, tourism, family visits and transit purposes. The measure is aimed at facilitating cross-border travel and promoting high-quality development and opening-up, the ministry said.

During the summer and National Day holidays, the services offered by Shi and his team were chosen by hundreds of visitors from countries such as Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Austria, the US, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.

"This year has been exceptionally busy. The number of overseas tourists we served nearly doubled, and our financial turnover during the summer grew more than two times compared with the pre-pandemic period," Shi said.

Although the work has been hard, Shi considers this a blessing, as just a year ago, he was struggling.

"Inbound tourism was really slow, and we had to rely on customized domestic tours to make ends meet," he said.

Such tourism took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A report from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism said that in the first quarter of this year, just 52,000 inbound tourists were catered to by travel agencies nationwide, compared with 3.7 million in the same period in 2019.

The China Tourism Academy said that from 2020 to this year, the number of inbound tourist visits to China is estimated to have fallen by about 370 million, resulting in a loss of some $362 billion in international tourism revenue.

However, inbound tourism is still widely considered to hold great potential in China. In the first 10 months of this year, the number of foreign visitors to the country reached 26.51 million after it optimized its COVID-19 policies, the National Immigration Administration said.

British internet celebrity Lee Barrett has traveled around China since he settled in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, five years ago.

Barrett, who has more than 360,000 fans on YouTube, said: "China is an amazing country, with a lot of places to see and a lot to do. There is super-modern Shenzhen, the international city of Shanghai, culturally-rich Xi'an, and beautiful Kunming."

He said he enjoyed coffee and cake at a street cafe during a trip with friends this month to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, when he "felt the world pass slowly by".

"Each city has a different style of food, with hundreds of dishes to try," he added.

Popular destination

In 2021, a China inbound tourist intention and attitude research report jointly conducted by Google and Ipsos, a leading market research company, said the nation remains attractive to global visitors as confidence in international travel is restored after the pandemic.

The report surveyed people from 19 countries who intend to visit China. The nation's cultures, landscapes and diverse experiences were identified as the top three attractions for global tourists.

This potential is likely to be tapped further, as more favorable policies were announced at the three-day China International Travel Mart 2023, staged this month in Kunming.

During the event, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official said more services are being offered to inbound travelers, such as simplified visa application procedures and the temporary exemption of fingerprint-taking for those who meet certain conditions. The official was speaking at an inbound tourism policy conference hosted by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

In total, nearly 100 Chinese embassies and consulates currently offer appointment-free visa application services, and by the end of this year, all such appointments will no longer be necessary.

The ministry said 260 Chinese embassies and consulates around the world will continue to improve the quality of visa services, making it easier for applicants to submit their paperwork.

In addition, the nation's 72-hour and 144-hour visa-free transit policies have been extended to visitors from 54 countries, the National Immigration Administration said.

Speaking at the China International Travel Mart, Mao Xu, director of the administration's foreigners management department, said visitors from countries with transit visa exemptions are allowed to travel or conduct business-related activities in certain areas permitted by port visa authorities.

Large cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, apply the 144-hour visa-free policy, while Changsha, capital of Hunan province, Harbin, the Heilongjiang provincial capital, and Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, implement the 72-hour policy.

In Chengdu, the authorities are preparing for the arrival of more tourists.

Guo Degang, a senior official at the Chengdu Municipal Bureau of Culture, Broadcast-TV and Tourism, said, "The inbound tourism market has grown slowly but surely over the past 10 months."

In the same period in 2019, before the pandemic emerged, the city received 469,000 inbound tourist visits.

Guo said the local inbound tourism market has great potential for further growth, adding, "Chengdu has a unique appeal as a destination for inbound travelers, especially those from Southeast Asia, with its leisurely lifestyle and distinctive cuisines, as well as the chance to see giant pandas."

The city is a center for visitors planning trips to leading tourist attractions across Sichuan, such as Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, Huanglong — the UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, and ethnic Tibetan, Qiang and Yi residential areas.

Guo believes that Chengdu will benefit greatly from the favorable inbound tourism policies.

"At the start of this year, we began to offer training in inbound tourism services to more people to cater to the increasingly high demand," Guo said.

"Visitors not only want explanations about tourist attractions, they are also keenly interested in everything during a tour, such as folk customs, food culture, and even social and economic development."

New partnership

Chengdu has formed a partnership with leading online travel agencies, including Trip.com Group, to attract independent inbound travelers.

Themed tours, such as those featuring giant pandas and snow-capped mountains, have been developed based on the preferences of travelers from different countries.

"Everything is being done to develop products to cater to the various needs of inbound travelers," Guo said.

Data from Trip.com Group suggest that the recovery in inbound tourism is accelerating.

Bookings in the first 10 months of this year grew by 125 percent compared with the same period last year, and reached nearly 80 percent of the number in 2019, the agency reported, adding that its bookings in the third quarter rose by 34 percent from the second quarter.

The most popular destinations for inbound tourists include Chengdu, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, and Qingdao, Shandong province.

The major source countries for such arrivals are the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and the UK.

Leading players in the industry are also planning to benefit from the favorable travel policies.

For example, Trip.com Group has signed a three-year memorandum of understanding with the China International Culture Association to promote inbound tourism.

The travel agency will promote on its platforms the association's Nihao! (Hello!) China campaign, which aims to foster and promote cultural exchanges and establish friendships between China and visitors from around the world. It will also create content to showcase specific services related to China's rich history and cultural heritage.

In addition, Trip.com Group will collaborate with Chinese cultural centers, tourism boards and other organizations to promote the country's attractions and experiences.

James Liang, executive chairman of the board at Trip.com Group, said, "To boost inbound tourism, the group will use its technological expertise to enhance ease of access for incoming visitors.

"In addition, we will consolidate resources to foster tourism promotion, while highlighting China's distinctive tourism attractions to draw in global visitors."

Trip.com Group said demand for trips to China should rise shortly, due to the efforts made by the government and the industry to facilitate travel.

Liang said that in some major economies, inbound tourism revenue accounts for 1-3 percent of GDP, adding that if China's inbound tourism revenue reaches 1.5 percent of GDP, it could generate more than 1 trillion yuan ($139.8 billion) in market growth.

Joint efforts

Trip.com Group has also joined hands with financial technology company Ant Group and several other travel agencies, including Our Tour. They plan to work together to enhance the entire inbound tourism experience by focusing on areas such as service portals, mobile payments with overseas bank cards, overseas promotion of domestic destinations, and the quality of group tour services.

An inbound tourism service platform will be set up on Trip.com Group's international website to assist travelers to China.

Our Tour advocates increased marketing and promotion efforts for Chinese destinations, optimized inbound tourism products and routes, and strengthened multilingual communication and development of tour guide teams.

Ant Group has proposed enhancing research and development of cross-border payments technology to support overseas visitors using electronic wallets, and linking foreign bank cards to digital payment systems.

Shi, the tour guide in Beijing, thinks that compared with before the pandemic emerged, international visitors are showing an increasing preference for customized itineraries that offer more freedom.

"Ancient Chinese architecture, history, culture and distinctive cuisine are highly attractive to these visitors," Shi said.

He added that in Beijing, popular tourist experiences include exploring the Forbidden City, walking the Great Wall, savoring zha jiang mian (dry-tossed noodles with hot bean sauce), and strolling the city's hutong, or alleyway, areas.

While Shi acknowledges that inbound tourism has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, he feels that many of those operating in the industry are now much busier.

"Confidence has also risen in the industry, as increased business from travel agencies is now coming our way," he said.

Shi thinks that next year, inbound tourism will likely recover to about 60-70 percent of the pre-pandemic level.

"We are fully prepared and eagerly looking forward to welcoming visitors from around the world," he added.