Visa-friendly countries witness surge of holiday travelers from China

The past Qingming Festival has seen another surge of Chinese travelers going to visa-friendly destinations.

The past Qingming Festival, a traditional Chinese festival during which people pay tribute to the dead and worship their ancestors, has seen another surge of Chinese travelers going to visa-friendly destinations from Southeast Asia to Africa, as some new favorable immigration policies for Chinese tourists started to take effect.

Those new rules have significantly facilitated Chinese visitors' overseas travel and more people-to-people exchanges. Experts believe that China's ongoing tourism trend might indicate a profitable outlook for local and global tourism.

From neighborhood to globe

With an eye-catching panda mascot hanging on the team flag, Wang Xiaomei, a tour guide, took a tour group of over 20 people from Chengdu, the capital city of China's Sichuan Province to Pattaya, one of Thailand's most visited seaside resorts.

Wang, from Sichuan China Youth Travel Service, has been working in the industry for 15 years. Since March, she has not taken one day off and is almost at full capacity every day.

"The tourist numbers have been booming since March. We used to arrange two tours every month, six days each, from Chengdu to Thailand. Now we've got five tours this month, and each of our tour guides has a very busy schedule," Wang told Xinhua in a hoarse voice.

During the three-day Chinese national holiday, various dialects of the Chinese language were heard near Singapore's iconic Merlion. Traveling to visa-free Singapore has also led to queues in front of the Universal Studio and its numerous gardens.

Data from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) showed that flight passenger services between China and Singapore have recovered to pre-COVID-19 level. Flight tickets booked for the Qingming Festival between the Chinese mainland and Singapore has exceeded the same period in 2019, up by 50 percent, with a 15 percent fare increase, according to Flight Master, a leading travel data processor.

Fiona Ma, director of EU Holidays, expected that Singapore will be a popular destination for short-term family travel for Chinese during May Day, another national holiday in China. "We will add some museum tours and Sentosa Sensoryscape, a new attraction, to our package."

Even in Tanzania, to which direct flights from the Chinese mainland take 12 hours, Chinese tourists showed an obvious increase, Pan Lei from "Fashion Tourism," the first Chinese tourist company in Tanzania, told Xinhua.

"Tanzania has one of the richest wildlife resources in the world and the Great Migration in the Serengeti plains. It is also home to Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, and Zanzibar, the pearl of the Indian Ocean," he said.

"The number of Chinese tourists visiting Tanzania has increased by 32.4 percent from 33,541 in 2019 to 44,438 in 2023," said Damas Mfugale, director general of the Tanzania Tourism Board. "Tanzania has a great culture, and we can attract Chinese friends."

Visa-free convenience

When China and Singapore implemented mutual 30-day visa-free travel on February 9, the Chinese mainland topped Singapore's visitor source that month with nearly 327,000 travelers, up by eight times year-on-year, according to data from the STB.

"The mutual visa exemptions between China and Singapore was good news for the tourism industry," said Alvin Tan, Singapore's Trade and Industry Minister.

"The visa exemptions brought frequent business travelers as well. Our inbound service increased by over 50 percent," Ma from EU Holidays said.

In addition to Singapore, this year, Antigua and Barbuda, and Thailand respectively signed mutual visa-free agreements with China. Currently, there are 23 countries that have comprehensive mutual visa exemption agreements with China, and the agreed visa-free stay for ordinary Chinese passport holders is generally 30 days.

"The travel experience to Thailand this time was very good. We felt the warmth and hospitality of Thai people, and also felt the convenience brought by the exemption," said Zhang Bingbing from China's Guangdong Province, who just finished a self-guided tour in Thailand with her six friends.

Zhang said that it has saved her more than 2000 bahts (US$55) in visa fees on arrival and the entry process was very smooth.

In the first three months, Thailand has welcomed 1.75 million visitors from China, the largest source of tourists to the Southeast Asian country, according to data from the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

The rising number of inbound tourists is supported by the mutual visa-free agreement between Thailand and China, which helps boost travel between the two countries, the ministry said in a statement.

With joint promotions to showcase tourist destinations and increased flight routes connecting Thailand with the largest Chinese cities, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) maintains its goal of attracting 8 million tourists from China this year, TAT Governor Thapanee Kiatphaibool told Xinhua.

Promising economic outlook

Natalia Bayona, executive director of the United Nations (UN) World Tourism Organization, said earlier this year that China's booming tourism industry will offer neighboring countries enormous business opportunities.

She said the return of Chinese tourists has filled many Thai people working in tourism with confidence.

Meta Kaewong is a photographer on Koh Larn island near Pattaya. He said he has witnessed a great increase in Chinese tourists after the visa exemption policy went into effect, and now he takes photos for more than 20 Chinese tour groups in one day. The increase in Chinese tourists on the island has also increased his income significantly.

To upgrade the travel experience for Chinese visitors, the STB has signed MOUs with WeChat Pay and UnionPay to encourage more travel and higher spending among Chinese visitors. Such efforts have paid off as the Chinese mainland topped Singapore's tourist spending chart with S$2.3 billion (US$1.7 billion) last year.

"The city is really a garden with a lot of trees and grass, which is impressive. Also, it is convenient to pay with WeChat and Alipay," a tourist who only gave his surname as Zhu from east China's Shandong Province told Xinhua.

The STB expects the tourism market to continue its recovery in 2024, driven by improved global flight connectivity and capacity as well as a visa-free deal between China and Singapore.

In Tanzania, Pan told Xinhua that since last year, he has seen more than 20 new Chinese restaurants and over 10 B&Bs and resort hotels invested by Chinese companies open. A tent hotel launched by a Chinese company has opened in Serengeti, where authentic Chinese food will be served.

Such visa-free policies, which facilitate people-to-people exchanges, can certainly bring more opportunities for win-win cooperation between China and foreign countries in both tourism and trade.

Pan said that thanks to the convenience of electronic visas and visas-on-arrival, as well as growing popularity of the east African nation, there are Chinese football clubs planning to train in Tanzania and film producers ready to present their work at the Zanzibar International Film Festival. The China Tourism Group has also created the China-East Africa Tourism Alliance and set up its headquarters in Tanzania.

"Cooperation in the tourism industry between the two countries will be greatly strengthened," he said.

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