After three years of closure, China is once again allowing entry to international leisure travellers from around the world. Jenny Southan reports

After shutting its borders in early 2020, China has finally started letting outsiders back in and issuing visas to foreign tourists. (Foreigners who had visas issued before March 28, 2020, will also able to enter China if their visas haven’t expired.)

Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO of the Advantage Travel Partnership, says: “China reopening its borders and issuing visas to foreign travellers after three years is another major step in the full recovery of the travel industry, following the unprecedented disruption of the pandemic. The removal of China’s travel restrictions will provide a significant boost to the global travel industry, with tens of millions travelling to and from the country each year.

“Following this news, we expect Advantage members to see a surge in bookings to China from both leisure and corporate travellers. For anyone planning to visit China we strongly recommend booking via your local travel agent, as they can advise on the best itinerary, have access to great value deals and can help navigate the complexities of travel to this destination, including the visa application process.”

This is a hugely significant step forward for the resumption of “normal” travel freedoms globally. In 2022, just 115.7 million cross-border trips were made in and out of China, with foreigners accounting for roughly 4.5 million. Before the pandemic, China logged 670 million overall trips in 2019, with foreigners accounting for 97.7 million.

The change in restrictions this month come after authorities in China declared “victory” over the virus in February 2023.

“The resumption of visa issuance for tourists marks a broader push by Beijing to normalise two-way travel between China and the world, having withdrawn its advisory to citizens against foreign travel in January,” says The Guardian.

However, China is suffering from an image problem among Western democracies, due to President Xi Jinping’s alliance with Russia’s President Putin, as well as its poor human rights records and accusations of espionage.

According to The Guardian, tourist industry insiders “do not expect a large influx of visitors in the near future or significant boost to the economy”. In 2019, international tourism receipts accounted for just 0.9 per cent of China’s gross domestic product.

Destinations in China that did not require visas before Covid, the southern tourist island of Haina, will revert to visa-free entry. Visa-free entry for foreigners from Hong Kong and Macau to China’s wealthiest province, Guangdong, will also resume.

New hotels openings in China include the Four Seasons Suzhou, Shanghai Kimpton Qiantian, Indigo Guangzhou Haixinsha, Mandarin Oriental Tianfu in Chengdu, and Moxy Hotels in Suzhou, Chongqing and Ningbo.

Daniel Aylmer, managing director for IHG Greater China, says: “With multiple domestic travel incentives and the steady recovery of the tourism industry, we believe that the Chinese market is poised for strong growth. We are continuously enriching our brand portfolio through partnerships, delivering distinctive new hotels that showcase the beauty of China to travellers.”

Boosting outbound tourism, China added 40 countries to its list for which group tours are allowed, bringing the total to 60. This list still excludes Japan, South Korea, Australia and the US, though.

According to UNWTO data, China grew to be the biggest tourism source market in the world prior to the pandemic. In 2019, Chinese tourists spent a collective US$255 billion on international travel, while domestic tourism served as a pillar of growth and employment, with more than six billion trips that year alone, supporting jobs and businesses across the country.

New insights from The European Travel Commission (ETC) and Tourism Economics.Travel between China and Europe continues to lag behind other long-haul markets, and is not expected to full recover until 2026.

Travel between the two continents is expected to reach 60-70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels this year, with forward data on bookings showing that “Chinese travellers still favour domestic travel”.

In contrast, travel from the US to Europe is forecast to surpass 80 per cent of 2019 levels this year, before fully recovering to pre-pandemic levels in 2024.