China welcomes foreigners. It just needs policies to make that clear

China’s recent announcement that it would extend the short-stay visa-exemption policy for citizens of 12 countries – 11 in Europe – until December 2025 is a welcome sign to the world that Beijing is interested in furthering intercultural understanding with more countries.

This comes as international arrivals continue to lag, with European tourists reportedly entering China at 30 per cent of 2019 levels. Now, the country even allows visa-free entry for foreign tourist groups via cruise ships. But will these new policies work?

On my recent trip to China under this visa-exemption policy, I found that it was, surprisingly, more challenging than in 2019 for foreigners to travel around the country independently, even for someone like me who speaks Chinese.

Access to some public places in China can be difficult without prior registration, or showing some kind of identification such as a passport or Chinese identity card. Tourist sites in Beijing, such as Tiananmen Square, require individual travellers to register a day before to enter.

Connecting to Wi-fi without a local phone number can prove difficult, too, while ordering and paying for meals at restaurants often requires a mobile payment account.



Tourism trouble: post-pandemic hurdles of China travel

Tourism trouble: post-pandemic hurdles of China travel

It was difficult for foreigner travellers to spend more than 60,000 yuan (US$8,280) annually in mainland China – the world’s largest society to go increasingly cashless – using mobile payment services until the recent increase of the annual cumulative transaction limit to US$50,000.

The lack of services that take Visa or Mastercard is also a hindrance. To address that, the authorities have made progress in rolling out payment services for foreign cards in the business districts of major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but similar measures are needed in other cities.

Additionally, public buses accept cash but do not usually give change. And, as I recently found out, you need a verified ID to buy a ticket at Beijing subway stations, which in many cases is not possible without a Chinese phone number. Since many pay for metro rides with digital wallets, staff are not always readily available to help.



Pay with your palm: Tencent launches new payment method in China

Pay with your palm: Tencent launches new payment method in China

In that regard, mainland China should take inspiration from Alipay’s Malaysia partner, Touch N’ Go, whose card is available for purchase at many major convenience stores in Malaysia and serves as a one-stop payment gateway for public transport and even on toll roads.

Such measures could help improve foreigners’ experience on China’s public transport, which offers good connectivity in major cities.

While mainland China’s own digital ecosystem makes things convenient for locals, the vast difference from the foreign apps visitors use will make it challenging for Beijing to attract more visitors in its efforts to boost its tourism economy back to pre-pandemic levels.

It is unrealistic for Beijing to change its domestic travel policies or information control such as the Great Firewall just to make things easier for foreign tourists. But while most nations leave foreign tourists to plan their own trips, China must not pass up the opportunity to create a better impression of the country.

A tousits checks his phone outside the Palace Museum at the Forbidden City in Beijing on August 13, 2023. Photo: Bloomberg

The kindness of strangers helped me with my mobility and accessibility challenges. But it can be tiring to constantly ask for help, and perhaps also for locals to be constantly stopped in the street. There should be a more efficient way to deal with these challenges. Perhaps a simple QR guide in English available at every port of entry could help travellers avoid undue frustration.

A lack of accommodation options can also be a barrier, especially outside major cities, where many hotels reportedly do not accept foreign guests. This has led some visitors to believe that they are not welcome in the less developed parts of China, when the reasons hotels don’t accept guests from overseas might be down to economic issues. To address this, Beijing could lower the barriers to hotels accepting foreign guests and offer more incentives to the hospitality industry.

Some say that making travel easier for foreigners is not a priority, but I wonder about that. Surely, if Beijing did not care about foreign tourists, it would not have expanded the visa-free exemptions – even though some European countries have not reciprocated.

Some foreign tourists might be put off visiting China due to the ongoing geopolitical tensions. So, to maximise its new visa-free policies, Beijing must do more to bridge the technical gaps between China and the rest of the world through its tourism policies.

Chee Yik-wai is a Malaysia-based intercultural specialist and the co-founder of social enterprise Crowdsukan



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