China’s visa-free policy takes effect for 6 European countries, showing ‘confidence, openness’
Published: Mar 14, 2024 09:01 PM
Foreign tourists enjoy themselves at Tiantan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 1420, in Beijing. Photo: VCG

Foreign tourists enjoy themselves at Tiantan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 1420, in Beijing. Photo: VCG

China is opening its door wider and wider to welcome foreign visitors, as the country extended its visa-free policy to six more countries, including Switzerland and Ireland, starting on Thursday. The move is aimed at boosting inbound tourism and people-to-people exchanges.

The latest move comes as China has already waived visa requirements for citizens from more countries, including those in Southeast Asia, and has also moved to address other issues for foreign visitors, including payment hurdles, underscoring the country's commitment to opening-up, experts said. 

Coming at a time when many major countries such as the US are tightening visa policies for Chinese citizens, China's series of opening-up moves highlight the country's confidence and openness that is conducive for an open world economy, in stark contrast to a rising isolationist and protectionist tide in some countries, experts also noted.

In the latest development, from Thursday to November 30, 2024, citizens from six European countries - Switzerland, Ireland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg - are able to visit China for business, sight-seeing, transit and other purposes for up to 15 days without having to apply for a visa.

The visa-free policies for the six countries were already announced previously, and airlines, travel agencies and visitors have already been preparing for its implementation, with an increased number of flights between China and those countries and surging inquiries and bookings. 

On Thursday, the first direct flight between South China's Guangdong and the six European countries after the visa-free policy officially took effect arrived in Shenzhen. The fight originated from Brussels, Belgium, and was operated by Hainan Airlines, which carried more than 20 Belgian nationals. 

Anticipating a growing number of passengers, Hainan Airlines told the Global Times on Thursday that it currently operates two direct flights to Brussels, with the one between Beijing and Brussels running daily and the one between Shenzhen and Brussels flying three times a week. 

Meanwhile, searches for flights from Europe to China have also surged. As of Thursday afternoon, searches for flights from Zurich to China have increased by 60 percent compared with last week, Chinese online travel platform told the Global Times on Thursday.

Overall, after the visa-free policies took effect on Thursday, some routes between China and those of European countries have shown a growth trend and the number of flights between China and Europe is increasing slightly, according to aviation information provider VariFlight. 

"This may indicate that the visa-free policy will promote tourism and business exchanges between the two sides and further strengthen ties between China and Europe," VariFlight told the Global Times on Thursday.

In December 2023, China also waived visa requirements for citizens from six countries, including five European nations such as France and Germany.

China has also recently signed agreements with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand on mutual visa exemption. Such moves have already boosted the number of inbound travelers, which reached 3.23 million during the Chinese Lunar New Year holidays, and the number of visitors from those visa-free countries doubled that of 2019, according to China's Foreign Ministry.

In addition to visa exemptions, China has also rolled out a slew of other measures to make it more convenient for foreign nationals to visit, including streamlining visa applications and improving payment services. Due to issues surrounding the acceptance of foreign bank cards and identity authentication procedures, many foreign visitors have faced difficulties when using China's mobile payment services, which is the most commonly used payment mothed in China. Hence, Chinese authorities have taken various steps to address these issues. 

Last week, the State Council, China's cabinet, issued a notice asking banks and payment and clearing entities to strengthen cooperation to continuously improve and expand mobile payment services for foreign visitors. On Thursday, the People's Bank of China, the central bank, issued a guide to payment services in China, saying foreign visitors now have a number of payment options, including mobile payments. 

Openness, confidence

The measures aimed at boosting inbound travel and people-to-people exchanges are just part of China's continuous, comprehensive opening-up drive, which reflects the country's openness and confidence, even when many countries are turning inward, experts said. 

"These visa-free policies are actually a manifestation of China's attitude that we are encouraging people-to-people exchange, supporting economic globalization and against trade protectionism," Bian Yongzu, a senior researcher with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times on Thursday. 

As some countries are trying disrupt economic and people-to-people exchanges between nations with the pretext of national security, causing great uncertainty for the global economy, "we are coping with this period of uncertainty with this mindset of greater openness and confidence," Bian said.

The US, in particular, has been seeing a surge of xenophobia and protectionism and has actually taken a litany of measures that disrupt global economic cooperation. Worse yet, Washington has been seeking a decoupling between China and the US by cracking down on Chinese firms, restricting normal trade and commercial activities, and even imposing strict visa requirements and treating Chinese students unfairly at the ports of entry. 

"Indeed, there are some protectionist tendencies in Europe and the US," Bian said, noting that some of these countries are facing profound internal difficulties that they have no viable solutions to address, so they have resorted to cracking down on developing countries. "Trade protectionism is just a political expedient that is unsustainable."

In contrast, China, even as it faces an increasingly complex external environment, has been opening up its economy and advocating for an open world economy. The Government Work Report, adopted at the recently concluded two sessions, said that China will further deepen reform and opening-up across the board. As an example, all market access restrictions on foreign investment in manufacturing will be abolished, and market access restrictions in services sectors, such as telecommunications and healthcare, will be reduced, according to the report. 

China's continued opening-up, particularly institutional opening-up, will not only make it more convenient for foreign businesses and investments to enter China, but will also boost their confidence and sense of certainty about China's economic development, experts said. 

"Moreover, it will also help foreign governments form a deeper understanding of China's economic development and become more willing to cooperate with China, which in turn helps share China's external environment," Bian said.