As international travel is approaching full recovery of 2019 levels, some destinations having already surpassed pre-Covid figures, one of the world’s largest destinations as well as largest tourism outbound markets only reopened at the beginning of the year and while it is yet to approach recovery, major steps have been taken this year in reconnecting to the rest of the word and especially Europe.
“The EU is committed to engaging openly with China across a wide range of topics. Seven months ago, in June, the 27 EU leaders had a strategic in-depth discussion on our relationship with China and we have a clear position: all EU member states are united”, European Council President, Charles Michel, said at the 24th EU-China Summit, taking place in Beijing on 7 December.
1. The end of zero-Covid
Not only did China have some of the strictest travel restrictions in the world, it was also among the last countries to ease and eventually scrap these restrictions. On 8 January 2023, after three years of strict lockdowns, quarantine, testing and virtually zero contact with the outside world and hardly any movement within its own borders, China officially abandoned the notorious zero-Covid policy.
The first step in a series of moves ensuring a gradual reopening was the relaxation of quarantine rules for international travellers, not only reducing the mandatory quarantine time, but also removing the imposition of having to spend that time in one of the government designated Covid hotels or medical facilities.
The following month, while some requirements still applied for the rest of the world, travel between the mainland and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao fully reopened. Testing requirements were completely scrapped, as were daily quotas of visitors allowed too cross into the mainland, while group tours were allowed to resume.
At the same time, international airlines reactivated direct routes to and from major Chinese cities, Air France being among the first ones, restarting one flight per week to Beijing and three weekly roundtrips to Shanghai and Hong Kong soon after China’s reopening.
The next important step in reconnecting people from around the world came in March, when China restarted issuing visas for international travellers on 15 March. In addition to the review and approval of new travel documents, visas issued before 28 March 28 2020, the date China closed its borders to most overseas visitors, that remained valid once again allowed entry into China.
On 29 April, China stopped asking international travellers to take a PCR test before arriving in the country, only requesting a quick, antigen test as proof of not being infected.
August brought several significant steps in China’s reopening. At the beginning of the month, on 10 August, China updated the list of countries to which group tours were allowed to be organised, resuming group travel to more than 70 destinations around the world, including all EU Member States. Outbound travel made up only 1.58% of the overall Chinese tourism market in 2023’s first quarter, with Chinese tourism agencies only recording 318,600 outbound trips. This compares to 155 million Chinese visitors to another country in 2019, according to consultancy firm McKinsey.
On 25 August, a direct flight from Wuhan, where the pandemic is considered to have started from, to Europe took place for the first time since January 2020, marking an important milestone in China’s road to overcoming the pandemic and completely reconnecting with Europe and the world. China Southern Airlines flight CZ607, operated on an Airbus A350, took off from Wuhan Tianhe International Airport (WUH) shortly after the scheduled departure time of 3:55 am, local time. Despite spending a total of 11 hours and 13 minutes in the air, the plane touched down at London’s Heathrow Airport on the same day, at only 8:18 am local time, half an hour earlier than the foreseen arrival at 8:50 am local time.
Rounding up a year of carefully planned, gradual reopening, as of 1 December, citizens of 5 EU Member States, as well as Malaysia, are able to visit China visa-free for up to fifteen days. Announced on 24 November, the visa exemption for France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain aims not only to promote tourism but “to facilitate the high-quality development of Chinese and foreign personnel exchanges and high-level opening up to the outside world”, according to a briefing by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning.
Germany’s ambassador to Beijing, Patricia Flor, praised the “unprecedented” ease with which Germans would now be able to travel to China, adding on X that Germany hoped “the Chinese government will implement the measures announced today for all EU member states. This would be an important improvement of our citizens’ mobility, enabling deeper personal, cultural, and economic relations between China and the EU.”
7. Looking into 2024
While great progress has been made this year, China’s tourist numbers are still massively behind what they were pre-pandemic. The first half of 2023 saw just 8.4 million foreign visits to China, less than 1% of 2019’s 977 million foreign visitors, albeit across the whole year.
At the beginning of the year, McKinsey Asia Travel estimated that the level of Chinese overseas tourism achieved in 2019 will fully recover from May 2023 onwards, and from there grow at an accelerated rate above the levels of 4 years ago, because the pandemic-induced shortfall in this period had also been a truly extraordinary source of savings. However, outbound tourists from mainland China only reached 40.3 million in the first half of 2023, according to official statistics, down from 154.6 million in the whole of 2019.
As the travel restrictions seem to be gone for good now and with the new visa agreements, 2024 might see greater improvement on travel both to and from China.