The extension of tourist visas between the United States and China, from one year to 10 years, will provide a huge boost to the travel industries of both countries, says one of China’s leading travel experts.
Jiang Yiyi, director of international tourism development at the China Tourism Academy, a top tourism think-tank based in Beijing, says the new US arrangement, along with the lowering of other visa restrictions for Chinese tourists elsewhere in the world, is likely to result in a steady 20 percent annual growth in the number of those traveling abroad.
However, she said the biggest hurdle of outbound tourism in China is the difficulty of getting visas. Those who have easier visa procedures on Chinese tourists will see quick benefits.
The result of that, she says, could be that other tourism markets might actually benefit from the new visa procedures, highlighting Jeju Island, in South Korea as a good example, which already allows visa-free short term visits from China. That move also quickly prompted a huge increase in the number of Chinese investors on the island, she says, moving there in the hope of cashing in on the Chinese traveler exodus.
Jeju attracted 1.81 million Chinese tourists last year, its largest single group of inbound visitors. Chinese investors are now believed to own 43 percent of the total land area owned by foreigners, worth nearly 3.63 billion yuan ($590 million), according to AJU Business Daily. Jiang says that despite the US promising to increase the number of visas it issues to Chinese visitors, the sheer volume of expected applications to travel there could prove impossible to process.
China’s outbound travel market has accounted for 20 percent of the growth in overseas visits to the United States since 2008. According to the White House, Chinese travelers consistently rank the US as their top desired travel destination, but only slightly more than 1.8 percent of total outbound travelers actually go to the country.
Last year, about $21.1 billion in spending was injected into the US economy by 1.8 million Chinese tourists, and the number of visitors is expected to jump 21 percent this year, according to the US Department of Commerce. The new visa policy could mean as many as 7.5 million Chinese visitors by 2021, bringing an estimated $85 billion to the economy, a White House statement said.
Last year, outbound Chinese tourist journeys reached 97 million, an 18 percent rise year-on-year. In the first 10 months of this year they have already exceeded 100 million, and are expected to hit 115 million by the end of this year.
Hong Kong and Macao continue to be the top outbound tourism destinations for Chinese mainland travelers, followed by Japan and South Korea, then neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, where visa applications for Chinese have already become relatively easy, and travel costs more affordable, according to Jiang.
But as Jeju Island, it is not just Chinese tourists spending money but also Chinese investors, who are eyeing the massive potential in making investments in popular outbound tourism destinations.
“Chinese tourists need services, especially those which make them feel at home, which is creating a big demand for Chinese products and facilities,” says Jiang. “The Chinese tourism industry is certainly going global.”
Chinese tourists have contributed significantly to the growth in global tourism spending, according to media reports. Last year, of the 5 percent increase in worldwide tourism spending around 17 percent came from Chinese travelers, Jiang says. In 2013, a total of 98.1 million Chinese tourists spent $120 billion abroad in around 110 different countries and regions, she says, $68 billion more than foreign tourists spent in China. As well as South Korea, other countries have also started easing visa policy to cash in on Chinese outbound travelers.
Thailand, for example, waived the need for a visa altogether for Chinese travelers, while Japan has launched a series of Chinese frequent individual traveler visas. Jessica Chuang, regional marketing director at Hotels.com, a leading online accommodation booking website, says more frequent-traveler visas are likely as countries fight to attract Chinese business.
She says visits to South Korea, Thailand and Japan have seen double-digit growth in the past year as a result. The cities of Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei have seen growth of more than 50 percent in travelers from the mainland while Osaka and Kyoto have enjoyed triple-digit growth in numbers.
Li Mengran, public relations specialist at Beijing UTour International Travel Service, says the US visa announcement has been warmly welcomed by its clients.
“The US was previously considered as a remote destination, or even a dream for many Chinese travelers due to the distance and complicated visa procedures,” says Li. “The new policy has been a complete game changer, meaning that many will now consider the US as their frequent destination of choice,” she says. “We have seen so many more inquires for our US products over the past month.”
Alex Wang, chief operating officer of Zanadu.cn, an online provider of luxury and boutique travel products, says gaining a US visa had become the determining factor for many customers when selecting it as a possible destination. But the expected easier procedures and shorter application time will now prove a major incentive to travel to the US for many.
“In the past, even a slight uncertainty regarding the visa application might push a traveler into making a different choice in destination,” Wang says.
Taking the pain out of travel
Louise Liang, a sophomore student at a college in Chicago, often found herself just as busy during her holidays back home in Beijing, than during term time.
But this wasn’t study which was taking up her valuable time, this was working to get a new visa. All her other plans including visiting friends and relatives had to wait until she had the peace of mind that next year’s study was secure, she says.
She also had to rule out the possibility of taking part in exchange programs in other countries during holidays, because that would have meant she had to apply for two visas at the same time.
Every year her parents, who have already visited her three times in the past year and half, had to spend time getting documents from banks and the companies they work for to complete their visa procedures too.
So the news that during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in November in Beijing, the US and China had agreed to ease visa restrictions on travel between the two countries will be a huge relief to students like her, she says.
Jane Wang, 33, a mother of a three-year-old daughter, also says that with the conditions eased her previous month-long trip to the major tourist destinations of the US West Coast and a short stay in the Hawaii islands will not be enough. The Beijing resident is already planning to travel with her family to the US East Coast in the coming months. The major incentive is that her visa will now last for 10 years, not just one as before.
She still recalls how nervous she was standing in the queue waiting for her face-to-face interview for her last US visa in 2012, after two months of gathering application materials and travel documents.
Wang and her family have spent about 200,000 yuan ($32,300) on their planned trip, ranging from shopping for clothes and toys, to staying at five star hotels, buying the necessary insurance, as well as hiring a car for a trip along the West Coast.