Laurie Baratti

According to online travel agency Trip.com, China is broadening its unilateral visa-free policy for ordinary passport holders from six nations—France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia—in an effort to bolster the recovery of the East Asian giant’s tourism sector industry. For now, the program is being implemented on a trial basis, with plans to keep it in effect from December 1, 2023, to November 30, 2024.

Under the expanded visa-free program, ordinary passport holders from the aforementioned countries can visit China for up to 15 days without a visa for the purposes of business, leisure or transit.  The idea is to make travel to China more easily accessible to a wider international market and foster stronger ties between the destination and these half-dozen countries.

The updated policy is also expected to serve as a catalyst for the recovery of the Chinese inbound tourism market, and its announcement has already spurred a surge in visits to travel platforms. Trip.com reports having witnessed four-digit growth in the number of visitors over the first ten months of 2023, compared to the same period in 2022, amounting to more than 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Its data also revealed Malaysia and Germany to be among the top 10 sources of inbound tourism to China within the same timeframe, with both supplying a notably increased number of tourists. On November 24, pageviews for flights from Malaysia to China spiked by 48.7 percent compared to the same day a week prior, indicating a robust interest in travel between the two countries.

Long-haul inbound travel is also exhibiting signs of a comeback, and even exceeding pre-pandemic levels. For example, bookings from Europe to China demonstrated an incredible 663 percent increase in comparison to 2022, along with a substantial rise of 28.9 percent over 2019’s pre-pandemic visitor volumes. Trip.com’s new “China Travel Guide” has also seen a 30 percent surge in page visits, having served nearly 100,000 overseas visitors since its September launch.

Hangzhou, China

Hangzhou, China. (Photo Credit: gaoshanshan/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

“China’s inbound tourism has huge potential, and if it is raised to the international median of 1.5% of GDP, it will bring at least nearly one thousand, three hundred and ten billion yuan of growth space,” CEO of Trip.com Group, Jane Sun, said in a statement.

In a strategic move aimed at boosting inbound travel, Trip.com Group recently signed a new framework agreement with the China International Culture Association, promising to implement its “Nihao! China” program. This initiative involves creating global promotional videos that highlight China’s allure as a travel destination.

Through their collaboration, these organizations also intend to establish a service platform for inbound travel and organize events at major international tourism gatherings, including China International Tourism Fair, the Sino-French Tourism Year, the China-U.S. Tourism High-Level Dialogue and the World Conference on Tourism Development.

Being the country in which COVID-19 originated, China maintained the very strictest of border control policies and lockdown protocols during the pandemic. Its “Zero COVID” policy, rigidly maintained for nearly three years, meant that barely anyone was allowed into or out of the country. The world’s second-largest country by population only began issuing visas to overseas travelers again as recently as September 2023.

Therefore, despite the rather rapid rebounding of domestic and outbound tourism, China’s inbound international tourism recovery has been slower. Its Ministry of Culture and Tourism reported that national travel agencies received 477,800 inbound tours in the first half of 2023, compared with close to 8.6 million seen in the first six months of 2019.


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