China’s Open for Travel But Few Tourists Are Coming, or Going

Peak summer in China — the first in four years without harsh Covid restrictions. Tickets for attractions like the Forbidden City in Beijing are selling out in minutes. Streets are crowded and subway stations are even more packed than usual. Foreign tourists, however, are few.

(Bloomberg) — Peak summer in China — the first in four years without harsh Covid restrictions. Tickets for attractions like the Forbidden City in Beijing are selling out in minutes. Streets are crowded and subway stations are even more packed than usual. Foreign tourists, however, are few.  

For many, China is a step too far. The pandemic is gone, but the memory of how it was handled remains — images of deserted streets and barricaded buildings are hardly fodder for holiday brochures and tourism campaigns. Visa hassles, a lack of flights, idiosyncratic payment systems and the language barrier also limit China’s appeal to tourists from places such as North America and Europe. 

“If you go to the Forbidden City these days and find 20 or 30 foreigners, that would be a lot,” said Jay Li, a tour guide in China’s capital. “Most people come to China for business reasons and maybe tour around a bit. It’s certainly not comparable with the situation before Covid — foreign tourists are probably only about 20% of that level.” 

Outbound Limits

Even a plan to increase international flights won’t result in a sudden rush of tourists, or bring numbers anywhere near to pre-pandemic levels when China received about 136 million visitors a year on average. China and the US have agreed to raise the number of round-trip flights to 24 a week by the end of October. Previously, the number of weekly flights between the two was 340. 

China also just lifted a ban on group tours to overseas destinations including the US, Australia, the UK, South Korea and Japan, easing the door open for outbound travel. The effect of that is likely to be muted too, given a general hesitancy to travel abroad after the pandemic scarred the nation’s economy and psyche. 

The main factor putting Chinese travelers off overseas trips is concern about safety in other countries, where they are fearful of getting an unfriendly reception, according to an April survey by Dragon Tail International. Also cited in polls by the company: health concerns, difficulty in getting documents such as visas, and the high cost. In the April survey, 58% of respondents said they either definitely wouldn’t leave mainland China in 2023 or were unsure about going abroad.  

With the sluggish economy also putting the brakes on spending, Chinese are getting their travel fixes closer to home. 

Liberated from the all-consuming virus restrictions, domestic air traffic is now above where it was before the Covid crisis and authorities expect the travel market to generate 5 trillion yuan ($700 billion) in revenue this year.

Beyond Beijing and Shanghai, popular destinations include Chengdu, Kunming, Hangzhou, Xian — home to the Terracotta Army — and Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region in the country’s northwest. 

Inbound Deterrents

The concerns Chinese tourists have about traveling overseas are reflected the other way, for visitors coming into the country. A sense of distrust and caution developed over the pandemic as relations between China and other countries soured. 

A US travel advisory recommends reconsidering travel to mainland China “due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions.” 

Other nations have similar views. The Australian government says a high degree of caution should be taken in China, warning that authorities have detained foreigners on so-called national security concerns and that there’s a risk of “arbitrary detention or harsh enforcement of local laws, including broadly defined National Security Laws.” 

The warnings have, unsurprisingly, dented enthusiasm. 

“The inflow of people into China is modest at the moment,” outgoing Mandarin Oriental Group Chief Executive Officer James Riley told Bloomberg News earlier this month. “There are some broader geopolitical tensions that are causing people to pause. It’s taking a little bit longer than it might otherwise have done.”

Air travel essentially dried up during Covid, which emerged in China in early 2020 and resulted in the world’s strictest border controls. It takes time to rebuild flight capacity from such unprecedented lows. 

China’s three biggest carriers — Air China Ltd., China Southern Airlines Co. and China Eastern Airlines Corp. — likely posted combined losses of almost 13 billion yuan in the first half of this year, according to HSBC Holdings Plc, even after the government finally abandoned its draconian virus containment policies. For the period from 2020 to 2022, losses amounted to close to 190 billion yuan for the trio.

Another factor making China daunting for visitors is the use of digital payment platforms that are unique to the country. Non-Chinese credit cards are rarely accepted, and it’s often difficult to even use cash. Most vendors — from street stalls to large department stores — only accept local payment systems such as WeChat Pay and Alipay.  

Barbara Kosmun, a Slovenia-based filmmaker, traveled to China this summer to meet friends and family working there. Kosmun last visited in 2019 and while she has shopped using WeChat Pay before so the setup wasn’t totally alien, it still proved difficult. 

China’s digital payment system “seems more difficult than before Covid,” she said. After trying five times to upload a passport picture to reactivate her WeChat Pay account and still failing, Kosmun gave up and relied on friends to cover her costs. 

The People’s Bank of China has said all businesses should accept cash, and WeChat Pay and Alipay have both recently pledged to improve links with foreign bank cards, but the hurdles needed to go through just to spend money is a source of frustration. 

“This WeChat thing makes me feel unwelcome,” Kosmun said. “China is the most convenient country in the world, provided you speak Mandarin, you have the right apps and you have a Chinese card.”

Without the local payment platforms installed on smartphones, it’s nigh on impossible to rent equipment such as bicycles to tour around a city. Local phone numbers are generally needed to book tickets for tourist attractions as well as ordering taxis and for other travel, while reserving train tickets can be a complicated process, especially for non-Mandarin speakers.

Getting visas can also be a challenge for many visitors to China, requiring going to an embassy or application center to queue — sometimes for several hours — and submit documents, and then returning days later to collect them. In Singapore, people have queued for more than 16 hours to get an appointment, the South China Morning Post reported. They are also costly — a visa for US citizens is at least $185.  

A post on Chinese website from June was widely shared for highlighting that American tourists were choosing Southeast Asia and Europe while avoiding China due to the many hurdles they face there. 

“Unless you have very deep feelings for China, it is definitely not the first choice for travel,” it said.

–With assistance from Danny Lee and Xiao Zibang.

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