By Yuan Yuan

Liu Lixia’s anticipation for the Spring Festival holiday from February 10 to 17 this year took an exciting turn on January 25 when Singapore announced the introduction of a visa-free policy for Chinese tourists, starting scheduled for February 9, coinciding with Chinese New Year’s Eve.

This 49-year-old housewife had initially planned a family trip to the city of Sanya, in the southernmost province of Hainan, with her husband and two daughters. “However, the airfare from Beijing to Sanya was very expensive in the holiday season due to its popularity as a winter destination,” she told Beijing Review. “Singapore has emerged as an attractive alternative, thanks to its visa-free policy and shared Spring Festival traditions.”

The announcement of the visa-free policy has significantly increased interest in Singapore travel offers. According to data from online travel agency Fliggy, searches for flights to Singapore increased 15 times and searches for hotels more than six times, just one hour after the announcement of this policy. By 4pm on January 25, bookings for Singapore’s Spring Festival holiday had increased more than 30 times from last year, revealing robust and sustained interest.

This enthusiasm was not limited to Singapore. Malaysia and Thailand have also seen interest from Chinese tourists grow sharply after Malaysia’s visa-free policy for Chinese tourists came into effect on December 1, 2023, and following Thailand’s introduction of a temporary visa-free policy, from September 25, 2023 until February 29, 2024. From March 1, Thailand and China will implement a mutual and permanent visa-free policy.

Recent figures from leading Chinese travel platform confirm this trend, showing that bookings by Chinese tourists to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand for the Spring Festival period increased more than 15 times compared to last year, indicating a significant increased interest in traveling to these destinations.

Preferences evolve – Liu highlighted how visa-free policies ease the burden of complex visa application processes for tourists. “Before the pandemic, our family used to travel abroad for the Spring Festival,” she said. “The need to apply for a visa often led us to opt for more distant destinations, such as Europe. Now, countries that offer visa exemptions have become more attractive to us.”

In Thailand, which had been offering visas on arrival to Chinese tourists for around a decade, the long queues of visitors upon entering the country used to make the process tiring. Therefore, to overcome this inconvenience, some travelers prefer to secure their visa before departure.

Before the pandemic, Liu’s family set aside around 50,000 yuan (US$7,000) for their Spring Festival trip, visiting more distant destinations, such as Europe and Australia. “Now, I don’t think it’s worth it (traveling so far) anymore when it’s just a week’s vacation, especially since the first few days are spent adjusting to the time zone, which leaves few days to enjoy the trip. in truth. Destinations closer to China have become more attractive to me for the Spring Festival holiday.”

According to an online poll by China’s Global Times newspaper, which collected around 25,000 responses, this year the top three destinations were the Republic of Maldives, Singapore and Thailand, all offering this friendly visa-free policy to Chinese tourists.

The Foreign Ministry revealed on January 31 that China has signed mutual visa exemption agreements covering various types of passports with 157 countries, and has established agreements or arrangements on simplified visa procedures with 44 countries in addition to the mutual comprehensive exemptions. visa with 23 countries, including Thailand, Singapore, the Republic of Maldives and the United Arab Emirates. China will expand the visa waiver policy to cover citizens of more countries and seek to increase the number of its mutual visa waiver agreements.

Innovation and recovery – Huang Qiuyue, a travel agency manager from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, spotted other Spring Festival holiday destinations emerging from Southeast Asia’s popularity. “Northern Europe and New Zealand are gaining traction on longer holiday periods,” she told Hangzhou Daily.

Finland and Iceland have begun to win over in-depth tourism experiences in Northern Europe, with the average spend per tourist ranging from 30,000 (US$4,000) to 60,000 yuan (US$8,000). A Hangzhou resident surnamed Chen spoke of her excitement about an upcoming 11-day trip to Finland and Iceland, because of her dream of seeing the Northern Lights, which was postponed by the pandemic and will now be a reality.

Travel packages to New Zealand specially designed for Chinese tourists were sold out last December, with prices per person between 30,000 and 40,000 yuan (U$5,500). “Before the pandemic, these packages primarily attracted seniors,” Huang said. “We are now facing a surge in younger travelers, including honeymooners.”

You Lijun, a travel agency manager from Shandong Province, revealed that these changes indicate a broader shift in the travel habits of Chinese tourists – moving away from flocking to hot, popular and familiar destinations to exploring more specific or niche destinations. .

As the tourism sector advances in its recovery process, comparisons with the pre-pandemic year of 2019 are inevitable. “But such a direct comparison fails to take due account of the context,” You told Shandong Daily, highlighting that the number of operational flights in 2023 still lags behind 2019 levels.

A ray of hope for the foreign travel sector in 2024 is the rapid resurgence of international flights. Data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China illustrates the remarkable recovery: from fewer than 500 weekly international flights in early 2023 to more than 4,600 by the end of the year. This recovery in the number of passenger services between China and Europe has reached more than 60% of its pre-pandemic capacity. This momentum is expected to continue throughout 2024, with forecasts of availability of around 6,000 weekly flights, around 80% of pre-pandemic service volume.

In 2023, Chinese tourists were ranked sixth in terms of the number of visitors to the United Kingdom, according to information from Visit Britain, the official UK tourism website. This was a notable drop from its pre-pandemic status, when it was the second largest demographic in the UK’s inbound tourism market.

But it is important to note that China only included the UK in the third batch of destinations for the resumption of overseas group travel in mid-August 2023. This decision left the UK with just four months to welcome groups of tourists from China last year, although annual spending by Chinese tourists in the UK still reaches around half its pre-pandemic levels – evidence of its resilience and potential for recovery within the tourism sector.

Compared with the explosive growth of domestic tourism in China, the recovery of overseas travel is still weak. At a tourism forum on December 15, 2023, Chen Gang, a tourism professional with more than a decade of experience in the industry, spoke of the evolving landscape of traveler demands. “The diverse needs of travelers require a broad spectrum of travel products for both the domestic and international markets. This diversity will define the tourism market trend for the next decade,” he said.

He also emphasized the crucial need for adaptability for travel operators. “To remain relevant, travel operators must act in accordance with these changing consumer preferences,” he said. “The way forward is by embracing and meeting the ever-changing desires of travelers through innovation.”

This article was originally published in the 47th edition of China Hoje magazine. Join the China Today Community for free and access the full content.


Leave a Reply