China struggles to attract foreign tourists

October 19, 2023 06:00
Photo: Bloomberg

In the first half of this year, just about 478,000 came, 5.6 per cent of the total for the same period in 2019. In 2019, 31.88 million foreigners came to China for tourism and spent US$77.1 billion.

The largest drop was in visitors from Western countries, Japan and South Korea, the traditional markets for China’s inbound tourism. They have been replaced in part by tourists from Russia, Mongolia, Myanmar and Vietnam, who have lower spending power.

China is struggling to attract foreign tourists, even after the lifting of Covid restrictions and resumption of international air travel.

One reason is visas. China requires visas for visitors from most countries. Until September this year, foreigners applying for a tourist visa had to fill in an 11-page application online. Questions included the professions of their parents, entire educational background and work experience, linguistic ability and travel history of the previous five years.

A U.S. citizen needs to pay US$185 for a single-entry visa to China.

On September 20, in an attempt to encourage more visitors, the Foreign Ministry announced a simplified form. Applicants need only report one year of travel history and their highest educational achievement.

“The improvement involves seven major items and 15 sub-items, concerning mainly the applicants’ educational background, family information and previous travel history,” said Mao Ning, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

Another obstacle is China’s almost cashless economy. Non-Chinese credit cards are rarely accepted and most outlets do not accept cash. They accept only local payment systems such as WeChat Pay and Alipay, despite instructions from the People’s Bank of China that all businesses should accept cash.

Without a local payment platform, it is almost impossible to rent equipment like a bicycle to tour a city.

A third factor is the lack of international flights. While these are increasing, they are far below the level pre-Covid. By the end of this month (October), there will be 24 round-trip flights a week between China and the U.S., compared to 340 before Covid.

The images of China during Covid also discourage visitors – empty streets, locked-down buildings and constant checks by officials.

Then relations between China and Western countries have deteriorated. The U.S. government has issued a travel advisory that recommends reconsidering travel to China “due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans and the risk of wrongful detention.”

The Australian government says that a high degree of caution should be taken in China, saying that there is a risk of “arbitrary detention or harsh enforcement of local laws, including broadly defined National Security Laws.”

Visitors worry that content on their mobile, iPhone or laptop may contravene one of these laws, with which they are not familiar.

In his speeches, President Xi Jinping constantly stresses the need to improve national security and prevent infiltration and loss of state secrets. This makes Chinese more reluctant to engage with foreigners and encourages the police to increase their surveillance of them.

Another factor has been the departure of long-term foreign residents from China. They attract family and friends to visit them, an important source of tourists.
The proportion of foreign residents in China is 0.05 per cent, low for the world’s second largest economy. Japan and South Korea have over two per cent.
According to the national census, the number of long-term residents from developed countries in China declined from 2010 to 2020. The number of French residents in mainland China decreased by about 40 per cent, from 15,087 to 9,196, and of Americans by 23 per cent from 71,000 to 55,000. The number of German, Italian, and Japanese residing in China also declined. China's most international city, Shanghai experienced a decrease in the number of foreigners from 208,000 in 2011 to 163,000 in 2021.

The drop further accelerated during the Covid pandemic, when many foreigners could not endure the lockdowns, restrictions and separation from their family at home.

Ian Johnson, a journalist, author and China analyst, said that China did not want foreign tourists. “It does not want foreigners at all, except those who bring technology and know-how it does not possess. The government is building a parallel universe to the one outside.”

Liang Li, a retired tour guide in Kunming, recalled his work in the 1980s. “To receive a foreign tour group, we had detailed preparations, with ‘correct’ answers to the questions they would ask. If they asked one for which we had not prepared, I avoided answering it.

“There was also an English-speaking member of the Chinese security police, in plain clothes, walking with the group. His job was not to listen to the questions but to my answers, to ensure that they were correct,” he said.

Is China returning to that era?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.