China lifting group tour restrictions and more flights to the U.S. represent real progress. But air service is still limited and visa backlogs remain.
In just the past few days, there have been two key moves that ease restrictions for travel from China to the U.S. Tourism officials have been clear that the lifting of these restrictions is critical to a full recovery –though key hurdles remain.
On Thursday, China lifted pandemic-era group tour restrictions for the U.S. and other key markets. Before the lift, Chinese travel agencies were banned from selling outbound group or package travel to the U.S.
And on Friday, the U.S. and Chinese governments agreed to double the number of weekly flights. Starting September 1, 18 weekly flights will be allowed. On October 29, that rises to 24 flights.
China was the U.S.’s top tourist market in terms of spending in 2019, Brand USA CEO Chris Thompson told Skift recently. The U.S. received nearly 3 million Chinese visitors that year, and these visitors spent $35 billion.
The latest moves may help bring them back. There have been only 12 weekly flights between the U.S. and China. Many Chinese travelers have resorted to taking flights from Seoul and Tokyo to get to the U.S., said Thompson. “I think air service out of China is probably still 10% of what it was pre-Covid,” said Thompson. “Even the Chinese that want to travel, they have to go a different way.”
NYC Tourism + Conventions CEO Fred Dixon said dropping the restriction on group tours was “a critical step forward in the market’s eventual comeback.” Dixon called the outbound group travel market the “missing piece” to China’s comeback.
That’s the good news.
But even with the air-service agreement, the number of flights is nowhere near the more than 150 that China and the U.S. had before the pandemic.
There’s also the worsening visa processing delay problem, according to the U.S. Travel Association. On average, Chinese travelers have to wait over four months at U.S. embassies to get an interview for a first-time visitor visa, up from 77 days in March.
“China was a top three market for overseas visitation pre-pandemic, but steadily increasing visa wait times threaten our ability to recapture these highly valuable visitors,” said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman.
China’s economy is also a cause for worry. Unemployment was a record 21% for 16 to 24 year olds in June, and debt levels have risen. Consumers are hoarding cash, according to Reuters. “There are economic concerns in China,” said NYC’s Dixon.
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