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China’s Foreign Visitor Numbers Slow to Recover

A crowd is pictured on a mountainside tourist attraction in China in the undated photo. Although China welcomes foreign trade and tourism, some foreigners say they are cautious about visiting.
A crowd is pictured on a mountainside tourist attraction in China in the undated photo. Although China welcomes foreign trade and tourism, some foreigners say they are cautious about visiting.

As China tries to show itself as welcoming foreign trade and tourism, its border authorities announced last week that the country had more than 35 million entries and exits by foreign nationals in 2023.

That was nearly seven times more than 2022, when Beijing’s draconian Zero-COVID policy was still in effect and visitors stayed away.

Still, the 2023 figure is around a third of the 97 million foreigner border crossings that were recorded in 2019 before the pandemic.

Experts and visa applicants say concerns about personal freedom are discouraging visitors, despite Beijing’s loosening visa requirements.

China’s embassy in the United States announced in late December that from January it would relax visa applications for U.S. citizens, no longer requiring them to submit detailed materials such as round-trip flight tickets, hotel reservations, itineraries, or invitation letters.

That is a welcome change for some Americans, like one recent graduate who tells VOA he has a long, complicated trip that he hopes to start in China and end in Southeast Asia.

"I want to stay in Beijing for a while first, visit China's ancient sites, and then go all the way south to Yunnan (Province), and then continue south to visit Laos and other Southeast Asian countries," said the graduate, who asked to be called Michael to avoid the attention of Chinese authorities.

But Michael said he’s reluctant to go through with the China leg, despite it being the country he wants to visit most, because he fears his personal freedom could be at risk – even as a tourist.

“I saw the State Department updated their travel advisory to ‘reconsider travel.’ I am not sure if I should plan to visit China, or maybe I can go but should take a few precautions.”

In June of last year, the U.S. State Department re-issued its level 3 travel alert on China with an update to reconsider travel there due to the “risk of wrongful detentions.” It also contained language on previous alerts to reconsider travel based on the risk of “arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans.”

Such concern is part of the challenge Beijing faces as it tries to present a positive image of the country as welcoming to traders and visitors.

The relaxed rules for Americans came just a month after China announced a visa-free policy from December for ordinary passport holders from six countries — France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Malaysia, and Spain.

China’s National Immigration Administration says the number of visitors from those countries was 28.5% higher in December than in the previous month. Beijing last week added Switzerland and Ireland to the visa-free policy.

China’s Civil Aviation Administration this month said it aims to boost direct flights between China and the U.S. from the current 63 flights per week. It had in November set a goal of reaching 70 flights per week to boost tourism and trade.

While it’s not yet clear whether the increased flights and loosened visa restrictions have boosted the number of Americans visiting China, those VOA spoke to who plan or regularly visit China expressed concerns about the worsening risks.

A Chinese-American from Houston, Texas, who works in international trade and travels to China five to six times per year, told VOA that while the requirements for tourist visa applications have been relaxed, since last year he noticed Chinese customs officers ask arriving visitors more questions than in the past. He asked to use the pseudonym “Mr. Li” in order to speak more freely with VOA about the issue.

“One difference is that China now [tacitly implies] that every foreigner, including every foreign Chinese, is a spy,” he said.

Last July, a revised version of China’s counter-espionage law went into effect raising fears of more arbitrary arrests. That has made Americans more concerned about traveling to China and Chinese citizens more wary of foreigners.

Zev Faintuch, a senior intelligence analyst with Global Guardian - a risk assessment firm that works with multinational companies - says there is still plenty of interest in going to China.

But, he adds, "because of that law, it’s legally much easier to detain foreigners as a result."

Faintuch says he's seen an increase in businesses wanting to assess the overall situation in China but is not optimistic conditions will improve.

"At least from where we are sitting, what we’re telling our clients, our message here is, we believe that the window for doing business in China is closing for Western companies," he said.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA that visitors should take that into consideration before planning to go to China.

"The release of the counter-espionage law encourages Chinese citizens to report to the government the people who they consider are like the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation),” Huang said, adding that the approach treats “potential visitors like they are not that welcome."

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.