World gives mainland Chinese travellers warmer welcome as nations ease visa restrictions

United States, Japan and South Korea among countries to extend length of visas and lowered threshold for travel approval to attract big-spending mainlanders

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 May, 2015, 12:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 May, 2015, 7:34pm

The relaxation of visa policies in many foreign countries means mainland Chinese visitors are now expected to travel abroad more than ever before.

Chinese citizens have long complained that their passports have been among those facing the greatest discrimination because of major difficulties when applying for visas to Western countries.

The situation has slowly changed, as popular overseas tour destinations – even the United States and Japan – have increased the validity of tourist visas or lowered the threshold for visa approval, in order to attract more mainland visitors, who are now among the highest spenders per capita in many places.

The latest country to vie for Chinese tourists is South Korea, which has started to issue them five-year multiple-entry visas after scrapping its system of one-year and three-year visas. The requirement for obtaining the new visa has been loosened so dramatically that people earning a monthly salary of more than 5,000 yuan are entitled to receive it.

Luo Luo, a 35-year-old woman who runs a small shop in Henan province, is one of beneficiaries of the new US visa policy. Since November the US has increased the validity of tourist and business visas from one year to 10 years, and the validity of student visas from one year to five years.

Luo, who failed to be granted a visa when she last applied in 2008, said she had received an unexpectedly quick response this time after her latest application for a visa at the US embassy in Beijing.

She said she had been asked only two questions: why she wanted to go to the US and whether her husband would travel with her. Luo told the US embassy she wanted to take her three-year-old daughter to the US for a holiday, and that her husband would not be travelling with them because he had to work.

“The interview was conducted in Putonghua,” she said. “What concerned me most during the interview was that the official didn’t even ask to be shown documentation about my income or property.”

Besides the US, Luo said she was planning to apply for multiple-entry visas to visit South Korea, Japan and Europe, so that she could “fly abroad whenever I want”.

She said she liked to go shopping abroad – mainly to buy things for her daughter – because she had lost trust in many mainland-produced baby products.

Between October and March, the US embassy and its consulates in mainland China processed more than 940,000 visa applications for business and tourist travel – up 55 per cent compared with the same period one year before. Nearly all of the people that had their business and tourist travel applications approved had received 10-year visas, said the US embassy in Beijing.

In mid-January, Japan announced a reduction in the minimum income requirement for people applying for multiple-entry visas and also extended the validity of visas from three years to five years.

Since that time, up to the end of April, the Consulate General of Japan in Shanghai had issued 380,000 visas to Chinese tourists – 2.9 times the number approved during the same period last year, consul Isamu Ishikawa said.

“We are very satisfied with the increasing interest from Chinese tourists. Japan welcomes Chinese tourists and our government attaches importance to this issue,” he said.

In March the consulate issued a record 145,000 visas to people wishing to visit Japan to see cherry blossoms in bloom in April.

“Visa applications from Chinese tourists have rapidly increased since last year, forcing us to borrow staff from the consulates of other Asian countries,” Ishikawa said.

At the start of last year, France announced that it would process short-term visas within 48 hours, compared with 2011, when it took eight weeks before receiving such a visa.

“We did not loosen any of the visa requirements,” the French Embassy in Beijing told the South China Morning Post.

“On the contrary, we implemented as many simplifications as we could within the framework of the Schengen Agreement [allowing borderless travel within 26 European nations]. For example, we no longer require hotel bookings for tourist visas, or flight tickets and hotel bookings for business visas.”

The changes led to more than 586 000 people applying for visas to visit France at the French embassy and the nation’s five consulates last year – up 55 per cent compared with 2013. During the first three months this year, visa applications increased by 64 per cent compared with the same period in 2014, the embassy said.

“We are still looking for new facilities and new processes in order to be more and more attractive to Chinese tourists,” it said.

Turkey has allowed Chinese passport holders to apply for 30-day single-entry visas on the internet and people can also receive an E-visa one or two days after filling in details of their personal information online, which takes only a few minutes.

Thailand, one of top-five overseas tour destinations for Chinese travellers, announced last year that it would be issuing on-arrival visas and did not charge for visa applications made from August to November.

The relaxation of visa applications – especially in advanced countries, which was once the biggest headache for Chinese tourists – would be a huge boost to the mainland’s foreign travel industry, said Shi Kaifeng, public affairs manager of the leading mainland travel website, Ctrip.com.

“That will help people to realise their dream of being able to go travelling whenever they want,” he said, adding that mainlanders’ enthusiasm for foreign travel had never been so high.

A China Tourism Academy study found that the number of mainland tourists travelling abroad during this year’s Lunar New Year holiday outnumbered those travelling within the country for the first time ever.

Shi said mainlanders had also “upgraded” their overseas travel habits; instead of trying to visit as many cities or countries as possible on a single trip they were now willing to spend more time staying at one place so that they could gain a greater understanding about the local people and their culture.

“A decade ago there were plenty of travel holiday tours, that visited nine European countries in 11 days,” he said. “Now these tours have been abandoned by many mainland travellers,” he said.

“At the same time, the introduction of longer-term visas by foreign countries and the easing of visa restrictions means mainland travellers no longer face hurdles if they want to go back again and again to visit a particular foreign city or a country that they are interested in.”