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China Reopened to Tourists, But Few Traveling There

FILE - A boy browses a tablet computer as he walks by a billboard promoting tourism destinations in Beijing on July 19, 2023. China fully reopened to tourists in March, but some statistics show foreign visitors are staying away.
FILE - A boy browses a tablet computer as he walks by a billboard promoting tourism destinations in Beijing on July 19, 2023. China fully reopened to tourists in March, but some statistics show foreign visitors are staying away.

The number of tourists visiting China is a fraction of the level it was before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, despite the country fully opening in March.

China has not published official nationwide tourism statistics since 2021. However, regional statistics show foreign visitors are staying away.

In Shanghai, international tourist arrivals from January to May this year totaled just over 910,000, with almost half arriving from Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan. Four times as many tourists visited Shanghai before the pandemic in 2019.


China’s “zero-COVID” policy closed the country to foreign tourists from January 2020 until March of this year. Chinese citizens showing coronavirus symptoms were forced to isolate as police and security forces locked down entire blocks — despite such restrictions having been lifted in most other parts of the world.

Those images left an impression on foreign travelers. “People are thinking, ‘How about the pandemic, during that time there was the very strict lockdown. Would I be locked down?’ And of course, they would not. But people are worried about that,” said Wendy Wu, the founder of Wendy Wu Tours, an operator of tours to China and other Asian destinations.

Political tensions

Wu said customer demand for the company’s tours to China are around 35% to 40% of pre-pandemic levels. Political tensions also put off some visitors.

“Sometimes, because of political reasons — the government’s felt not very friendly, among China and the West relations — and that has certainly impacted the customers’ decision to go or not,” Wu said.

The lack of foreign visitors, even after three years of lockdown, means that many of China’s main attractions are much quieter.

China Has Reopened to Tourists, but Few Want to Travel There
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Warm welcome

“Before the pandemic … there were plenty of tourists, plenty of foreign visitors — you are just one among hundreds of thousands, it was nothing,” Wu said. “But now, because there’s so few, [tourists] are asked to take a photo wherever they go and treated like a celebrity, like 30 years ago, and it is incredible.

“Of course, it brings people together,” Wu told VOA. “They get to see all these natural wonders and attractions. But right now, [the Chinese are] even more friendly than ever before because they have not seen a foreigner for so long.”

Japanese visitors

China was a major destination for Japanese tourists and business travelers before the pandemic, but demand has failed to return, according to Yoko Hayano of JTB Tourism Research and Consulting.

“Since the coronavirus pandemic, all air routes have not yet been restored,” Hayano told VOA. “The number of airline seats available [to China] is still only about 30% compared to 2019, so there is a big impact.”

Meanwhile Japan is experiencing a boom in foreign tourism.

“The number of tourists visiting Japan from China is increasing rapidly, so in that sense, there are fewer airline seats that Japanese people can use,” Hayano said.

Political tensions between Tokyo and Beijing also weigh on tourism. Japan warned Friday that its citizens in China should keep a low profile after Beijing strongly criticized Tokyo for releasing treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean. Scientists have said the plan does not present a health risk.


China is trying to revive inbound tourism. Earlier this month, Beijing and Washington agreed to double the number of direct passenger flights between China and the United States starting in late October to 24 per week — still far below the number of flights before the pandemic.

Meanwhile the Chinese government is trying to ease foreigners’ access to mobile phone payment systems as the country moves rapidly toward becoming a cashless society. Visa applications are also being simplified for some countries.

“In Australia, in New Zealand and in many countries in Europe, they already scratched the need for fingerprints since 11 August. So that’s good news,” tour operator Wu told VOA.