China will fully reopen borders to foreigners, but short-term hurdles remain

By Joe Cash and Sophie Yu

BEIJING (Reuters) – China will reopen its borders to foreign tourists for the first time in three years since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic by allowing the issuance of all categories of visas from Wednesday.

The lifting of this last cross-border control measure to protect against COVID-19 comes after authorities declared victory over the virus last month.

Insiders in the tourism industry expect neither a massive rush of visitors nor a significant economic boost in the short term. In 2019, international tourism revenue accounted for just 0.9% of China’s gross domestic product.

However, the resumption of visa issuance for tourists marks a broader push by Beijing to normalize two-way travel between China and the world, after withdrawing its warning to citizens against outbound travel in January.

Areas in China that did not require a visa prior to the pandemic will resume visa-free entry, the foreign ministry said on Tuesday. These include the southern tourist island of Hainan, a long-time favorite of Russians, as well as cruise ships passing through the port of Shanghai.

Visa-free entry for foreigners from Hong Kong and Macau to China’s wealthiest province, Guangdong, is also resuming, a boon especially for high-end hotels popular with international business travelers.

“The announcement that China will resume issuing almost all types of foreigner visas starting tomorrow is positive for Australian companies whose executives plan to travel here to visit their China-based teams, customers and suppliers and seek new business opportunities on the mainland exploring the market,” said Vaughn Barber, Chairman of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in China.

Chinese events open to foreign visitors – such as the China Development Forum in Beijing later this month and the Shanghai Auto Show in April – are gradually resuming. The quadrennial Asian Games will also be held in the eastern city of Hangzhou in September after being postponed last year due to China’s COVID concerns.

But potential visitors may not flock immediately.

Negative views of China in western democracies have hardened amid concerns over human rights and Beijing’s aggressive foreign policy, as well as suspicions surrounding its handling of COVID-19, a global Pew Research Center poll showed in September.

“In terms of tourism, China is no longer a hotspot,” said a senior executive at China International Travel Services in Beijing, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“In the commercial arena, foreigners’ desire to hold events in China has also declined post-COVID because too many things here are influenced by politics that put them off.”


In a further relaxation of controls on outbound tourism, China has added another 40 countries to its list for which group travel is allowed, bringing the total number of countries to 60.

But the list still excludes Japan, South Korea, Australia and the United States. Relations between these countries deepened as Washington confronted Beijing over issues ranging from Russia and Ukraine to the 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 excited institutional investors will be after all the scary news,” said Duncan Clark, founder of BDA, a Beijing-based investment consultancy.

In 2022, only 115.7 million cross-border trips were made to and from China, with foreigners accounting for around 4.5 million.

In contrast, in 2019 before the arrival of COVID, China recorded a total of 670 million trips, with foreigners accounting for 97.7 million.

(Reporting by Bernard Orr, Wang Jing, Joe Cash, Sophie Yu, Brenda Goh, Li Qiaoyi, and Ellen Zhang; Writing by Ryan Woo; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Edwina Gibbs & Simon Cameron-Moore)


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