March 15 marks a turning point in China's tourism industry as the country eased both outbound and inbound travel rules to further facilitate cross-border travel. Industry experts believe China's outbound tourism is expected to explode in the summer, while the revival of inbound tourism may take some time.
China reopened its borders to foreign tourists for the first time in three years since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, allowing all categories of visas to be issued from Wednesday onwards, according to a statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday.
In further relaxing of controls on outbound tourism, China resumed outbound group tours for Chinese citizens to 40 other countries, also from Wednesday, bringing the total number of countries available to 60.
As international flight capacity gradually recovers and the price of outbound flights gets lower, it is expected that the outbound travel market will see a sharp increase during the May Day holiday and summer vacation, according to Tongcheng Research Institute.
Data from Alibaba's travel brand Fliggy, released on Wednesday, showed that the number of hotel reservations at home and abroad made on its platform for the May Day holiday has exceeded the pre-pandemic period. Compared to last year, the number of room bookings for domestic hotels over the May Day holiday has increased by more than 3.5 times.
However, tourism industry insiders do not expect a massive influx of visitors in the short run, nor a significant boost to the economy.
Tom Simpson, president of the China Britain Business Council, told Caijing Magazine that China still required nucleic acid test results from passengers arriving from the UK and that flights could not be fully resumed immediately.
Despite the challenges, the resumption of visa issuance for tourists marks a broader push by China to normalize two-way travel between China and the rest of the world.
"The resumption of visa applications and issuance is a further step towards normalizing China-UK tourism. The chamber has seen a significant increase in business travel applications since January 2023, and the new policy will lead to a significant increase in arrivals, especially for sightseeing," Simpson said.
Vaughn Barber, chairman of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in China, told Reuters that the policies are positive for Australian businesses whose executives would like to travel to visit their China-based teams, customers and suppliers, and to explore new business opportunities in the Chinese mainland market.
Since China relaxed its travel restrictions on January 8, the country has logged almost 40 million entry and exit trips between January 8 and March 7, according to data from the National Immigration Administration. The numbers more than doubled compared to the same period last year.
Latest data showed that 122,000 visas and residence permits for foreigners were issued by immigration administration agencies nationwide by March 7, up 33 percent since January 8 when China eased its travel rules.
This rapid adjustment is the first boon after the "two sessions" – the annual meetings of China's top legislature and political advisory body, and an opportunity for recovery, not only for China but also for the world, Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
"The world will see China turning its promise of further opening up into concrete actions," Wang said.