Published: 11:22, June 7, 2024
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Inbound tourism drive sparks optimistic outlook
By Yang Feiyue

Visitor-friendly policies, visa-free entry, easier payments boost appeal to travelers

Tourists from the Mein Schiff 5 cruise ship enjoy their visit to Shanghai on April 6, 2024. Visitors from European countries including Germany, Austria and Switzerland, are allowed visa-free entry. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Last month, senior tour operator Iain Bell traveled from the United Kingdom to China at the invitation of Beijing tourism authorities to sample the capital city's cultural and historical charms.

The three-day trip was one of a large number of undertakings by central and local authorities to attract international visitors and promote the country's myriad attractions.

During his stay, Bell marveled at the grandeur of the Badaling section of the Great Wall, the Palace Museum's ancient complex and precious cultural relics, and the unique charm of the royal garden at the Summer Palace.

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Bell said he was particularly impressed by his interactions with a tai chi master at the Temple of Heaven and the "magic" of the traditional Chinese martial art.

"It was so different from my understanding of the country," Bell said, adding that he found China vibrant and was impressed by the country's internal and external harmony.

The Brit also said he greatly admired Beijing's clean and orderly urban environment, adding that what touched him most was the warmth and friendliness of ordinary Chinese people he met in streets and alleys or at famous historical sites.

"It was a very rewarding trip, and I gained a new understanding and deep appreciation of Chinese culture," he said.

Tourists from the Mein Schiff 5 cruise ship enjoy their visit to Shanghai on April 6, 2024. Visitors from European countries including Germany, Austria and Switzerland, are allowed visa-free entry. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

'Wonderful experiences'

Bell said he would take his "wonderful experiences and feelings" back home to the UK, and encourage more Britons to visit Beijing to experience the "authentic and endearing China".

He was one of a dozen travel agency representatives from the UK whom the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism invited to join the trip. The aim of the visits was to offer firsthand information, help develop inbound tourism products for Beijing, and build a solid bridge for exchanges and cooperation between the tourism industries of the two countries, according to the bureau.

In addition to traditional scenic spots, Bell and the other UK representatives also took a nighttime boat tour along the Liangma River, and a tricycle ride through the labyrinthine hutong lanes.

Following in the footsteps of the UK visitors, more than 100 travel agency representatives from Australia, New Zealand, the US, Singapore, Italy, Germany, and Spain arrived in the capital city to attend the Beijing Inbound Tourism Development Conference. The gathering commenced on May 24 with the primary objective of fostering a platform for interaction, and enhancing collaboration between Chinese and international travel agencies.

Sima Hong, vice-mayor of Beijing, delivered a keynote address at the conference, expressing Beijing's aspirations to leverage the event to establish strong dialogue with global tourism industry experts.

The city is aiming to bolster resource-sharing, foster reciprocal visitor exchanges with international travel agencies, enhance cooperation, and facilitate knowledge exchanges to develop premium tourism routes, she said.

Sima said these initiatives would help transform the tourism landscape, enable the industry to better cater to enriching experiences, drive economic growth, and foster a deeper understanding of diverse civilizations.

These efforts will create shared opportunities in the tourism market, and ultimately help advance tourism development.

At the Beijing conference, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism awarded global strategic partner certificates to 10 travel agencies from major markets including the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Japan, and Singapore. Under the partnership framework, both sides will actively promote the sale of Beijing tourism products overseas, acquire timely and accurate market feedback, and formulate more targeted overseas promotion plans, the authorities said.

Additionally, the Beijing bureau will facilitate greater cooperation between the overseas partners and high-quality tourism enterprises in China.

The meeting organizers said the event was an important measure to implement the central government's instructions on tourism work.

Foreign tourists dressed in hanfu, the traditional attire of the Han ethnic group, visit the Palace Museum in Beijing in March 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Howdy, partner

Terry Dale, president of the United States Tour Operators Association, said he was encouraged by the country's good faith and determination to welcome inbound travelers.

He joined the Beijing conference after the 14th China-US Tourism Leadership Summit, which opened on May 22 in Xi'an, Shaanxi province. Nearly 400 representatives from the governments, institutions, destinations, and enterprises of the two countries gathered in Xi'an.

The summit was organized to promote the recovery and development of China-US tourism cooperation and take it to a new level, according to authorities.

Dale said the ensuing cultural and tourism tours in Beijing and Xi'an had left a deep impression on him, and he will actively promote dialogue between both countries' tourism industries to build a bridge for China-US tourism exchanges and cooperation.

He also said he believes such events will encourage US travel companies to develop more inbound tourism products for China.

Zhang Kexiong, assistant general manager of Beijing-based CTG Travel, said that after the pandemic his company arranged tours for international travelers to experience popular new destinations across the city.

He said he is confident about the prospects for the inbound tourism business, as the country has an abundance of culture and history that has already proved a hit with international visitors. "We also have fresh air, hospitable people, and travel here is safe," Zhang said.

Favorable policies

China has rolled out a slew of favorable inbound travel policies in recent months.

In mid-May, it announced a policy allowing visa-free entry of foreign tour groups aboard cruise ships via all the country's cruise ship ports.

Foreign tour groups comprising two or more individuals and organized or received by domestic travel agencies can also enter the country visa-free through cruise ship ports in 13 cities and stay for up to 15 days, according to the National Immigration Administration.

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism and other departments are also streamlining the inbound tourism process. Measures include optimizing visa and customs policies, improving tourism services, and enhancing the management of and shopping environment at cultural and tourism sites, according to the ministry.

In April, the ministry, the People's Bank of China, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange and the National Cultural Heritage Administration jointly issued a notice requiring all 5A-and 4A-rated tourist destinations, national and provincial tourist resorts, national tourist cultural streets, and three to five-star hotels to accept domestic and international bank cards.

Major cultural and tourism attractions should retain ticket booths and ticketing staff to accommodate visitors who prefer cash payment options, the notice said. It also called for efforts to actively set up foreign currency exchange outlets in venues with a large number of foreign tourists, and enhance mobile payment services and relevant product features.

Last November, visa-free policies were implemented for passport holders from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia.

In March, China announced it would grant visa-free entry on a trial basis to visitors from Switzerland, Ireland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg.

According to the Foreign Ministry, from March 14 to Nov 30, passport holders from these six countries would be able to enter China without a visa for up to 15 days for business, tourism, family visits and transit purposes.

Right after the May Day holiday, the government decided to extend the visa-free policy for short-term visits for all 12 countries mentioned until the end of 2025.

Tourists from South Korea pose for a photo on a glass bridge in Zhangjiajie Scenic Area in Hunan province in May 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Payments made easy

Led by the national policy, Beijing has taken a series of measures to improve international travel services this year, said Wei Rong, director of international exchanges and cooperation at the Beijing culture and tourism bureau.

A new portal website for the international community, available in nine languages, has been up and running since March. Inbound traveler payment demonstration sites have been established at the Beijing Capital International Airport and the Beijing Daxing International Airport, Wei said.

"Payment services in key areas such as dining, accommodation, transportation, tourism, shopping, entertainment, study and healthcare have been comprehensively optimized," Wei said.

Tourists from Southeast Asian countries can use their local apps to pay in China, as some of them have connections with the payment giant China UnionPay, said a staff member from the company at the Beijing conference.

"For long-haul tourists from Europe and the US, they can download UnionPay and use their local bank card to apply and deposit money onto a virtual card, before they can use UnionPay for purchase," the staff member said.

The positive measures have helped Beijing receive 790,000 inbound tourists from January to April, a year-on-year increase of 291 percent, and 70 percent of the pre-pandemic level in 2019, the Beijing bureau reported.

International flights between Beijing and outbound destinations including Seattle, Dublin and Madrid have resumed, and the frequency of flights to New York, Los Angeles, Munich, Seoul and Tokyo has been increased.

Daxing airport has also opened new international routes to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and Jeju in South Korea.

As a result, Beijing's total air passenger throughput reached 37.54 million in the first four months, a year-on-year increase of 49.3 percent, and equal to 114 percent of the 2019 level for the same period.

The international and regional passenger throughput was 5.83 million, a year-on-year increase of 371.2 percent, reaching 65 percent of the 2019 level, according to the bureau.

So much to offer

Like the US tour operators' representative Dale, Laura Mandala from the United States was also invited to join the two tourism events last month.

Mandala runs a tour research firm in Alexandria, Virginia, and believes the promotion of remarkable attractions like China's UNESCO World Heritage Sites will encourage more US travelers to visit "because they cannot see them anywhere else".

She added that the easiest segments to target are travelers who have already visited China and those from Asia.

She said she was still mesmerized by her "wonderful" spa experience in mountain hot springs in Chongqing in 2019, when she also took a cruise trip along the Yangtze River.

"It was fantastic, and it's a trip I can sell to women travelers," she said.

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Brian Linden, who has lived in Yunnan province for more than two decades and runs a hotel, said he was glad to join the events in Beijing and Xi'an.

"It's been exciting to see so many Americans and also other foreigners. Everyone discussing travel again makes me feel more optimistic," Linden said.

He said he hopes more similar meetings will be staged in the future in China.

A senior player in the industry who has received many inbound travelers over the years, Linden proposed associating China travel with the idea of being "cool". "I've been to more than 110 countries, but China has so many more scenic spots to offer and many of them are worth seeing," Linden said.

He also suggested the country further tap into its well-developed high-speed railway for inbound travelers.

"We should have a special pass for foreigners, a special pass that they could buy. So for two weeks or three weeks, they would be able to travel throughout China by train," he said.

"There's still a lot more about China that needs to be shared with global travelers," he added.