China will reopen its borders to foreign tourists for the first time in the three years since the Covid pandemic erupted by allowing all categories of visas to be issued.
The removal of this last cross-border control measure on Wednesday comes after authorities declared victory over the virus last month.
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% of China’s gross domestic product.
But 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issuance for tourists marks a broader push by Beijing to normalise two-way travel between China and the world, having withdrawn its advisory to citizens against foreign travel in January.
Areas in China that did not require visas before the pandemic would revert to visa-free entry, the foreign ministry said. This would include the southern tourist island of Hainan, a longtime favourite destination among Russians, as well as cruise ships passing through Shanghai port.
Visa-free entry for foreigners from Hong Kong and Macau to China’s most prosperous province, Guangdong, will also resume, a boon particularly to luxury hotels that are popular among international business travellers.
The chair of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in China, Vaughn Barber, said: “The announcement that China will resume issuing nearly all type of visas for foreigners is positive for Australian businesses, whose executives would like to travel to here to visit their China-based teams, customers and suppliers and to explore new business opportunities in the mainland market.”
Chinese events open to foreign visitors, such as the development forum in Beijing this month and the Shanghai auto show in April, are gradually resuming. The quadrennial Asian Games will also take place in the eastern city of Hangzhou in September after being postponed last year.
But prospective visitors may not immediately arrive in droves. Unfavourable views of China among western democracies have hardened amid concerns over human rights and Beijing’s aggressive foreign policy, as well as suspicions surrounding handling of Covid, according to a global survey by the Pew Research Center in September.
“In terms of tourism, China is no longer a hotspot destination,” said an executive at China International Travel Services in Beijing, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“Commercially, the wish of foreigners to run events in China also decreased after Covid, because too many things here are impacted by politics, which has scared them off.”
In a further relaxation of controls on outbound tourism, China added 40 countries to its list for which group tours are allowed, bringing the total to 60.
But the list still excludes Japan, South Korea, Australia and the US. Tensions between those countries deepened as Washington faced off with Beijing over issues from Russia and Ukraine to Chinese military presence in the South China Sea.
“It’s common to use tourist visas to come to China on business but I don’t know how enthusiastic institutional investors will be to do so, after all the drumbeat of scary news,” said Duncan Clark, the founder of BDA, a Beijing-based investment consultancy.
In 2022, just 115.7m cross-border trips were made in and out of China, with foreigners accounting for about 4.5m.
By contrast, China logged 670m overall trips in 2019 before Covid, with foreigners accounting for 97.7m.