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China’s Visa-Free Initiative Popular Among Southeast Asian Tourists; Analysts Also See Geopolitical Benefits

Photo credit: iStock

Foreign tourists are applying for temporary entry permits at Tianjin Dongjiang border inspection station in north China’s Tianjin Municipality on April 7, 2024. The cruise ship Serenade of the Seas arrived at Tianjin International Cruise Home Port in the port city of Tianjin on Sunday morning, carrying more than 1,800 tourists from 50 countries and regions. The ship will stay in Tianjin for two days and one night, with over 800 crew members and tourists. Most tourists plan to visit Beijing and Tianjin. According to Dong Zichen, deputy general manager of Tianjin International Cruise Home Port Co., Ltd., the port has welcomed 22 cruise ships and hosted 68,000 tourists so far this year. (Xinhua/Sun Fanyue)

China’s National Immigration Administration (NIA) announced on Wednesday the immediate implementation of a visa exemption policy for foreign tourist groups arriving on cruise ships from designated coastal provinces and cities.

The initiative aims to facilitate interactions between Chinese and foreign nationals and enhance China’s openness to the world. Experts anticipate that these visa policies could restore passenger numbers to pre-pandemic levels seen in 2019.

Effective immediately, foreign tourist groups (comprising two or more individuals) traveling via cruise ships organized by domestic travel agencies can enter mainland China collectively without visas. This applies through designated cruise ports in 13 cities such as Tianjin, Shanghai, Lianyungang, Wenzhou, Zhoushan, Xiamen, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Haikou, and Sanya. Mao Xu, director-general of the NIA’s Foreigners Management Department, announced these details at a press conference.

Tour groups must remain with their cruise ship until it departs China, and their stay is limited to 15 days, during which activities are restricted to coastal provinces, municipalities, autonomous regions, and Beijing.

In support of cruise tourism development, seven cruise ports including those in Dalian, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen have been included in the visa-free transit policy for citizens from 54 countries, simplifying transfer and departure processes for foreign passengers.

The policy’s implementation aims to boost China’s cruise economy, facilitate international exchanges, and foster industry growth, according to Mao.

These new measures are seen as a significant breakthrough that will inject fresh momentum into inbound tourism, with potential for further growth, noted Yang Jinsong from the China Tourism Academy.

Since late 2023, China has progressively introduced tourism-friendly policies such as visa exemptions and convenient payment methods for foreigners, aiming to enhance people-to-people exchanges. Wednesday’s announcement marks a crucial continuation of these efforts, according to Yang.

Helen Huang, President of MSC Cruises China, highlighted that expanding visa exemptions beyond Shanghai to other ports signifies global and port visit planning enhancements for international cruise companies, benefiting Chinese ports in attracting more tourists.

An industry insider, speaking anonymously, noted that broadening China’s visa-free travel scope will facilitate operations for international cruise companies making stops in China.

These initiatives build on the success of Shanghai’s pilot visa-free policy for cruise groups since October 2016, which saw Shanghai’s cruise passenger trips grow annually by 10%, boosting Shanghai and coastal economies.

The new policy offers more flexibility in entry ports and duration of stay compared to the previous Shanghai pilot, aligning with the evolving needs of cruise services and increasing foreign tourist numbers, as per Mao’s comments.

Moreover, to ensure smooth implementation, optimization measures include exempting cruise ship passengers from biometric data requirements such as fingerprinting, as outlined by Li Tao, deputy director of the NIA’s Border Inspection and Management Department.

China’s cruise sector has demonstrated strong growth, with 107,000 cruise passenger trips recorded in 2023 and 21 international cruise ships currently operating from domestic ports, according to Zhu Zhenyu, deputy director of the Ministry of Transport’s Water Transport Bureau, at Wednesday’s press briefing.

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