China’s Outbound Tourism Rebounds with Visa-Free Boom and Surge in Middle East Travel

  • Skift Take
    2024 may be the first “back to normal” year for China’s outbound travel since the pandemic, and Chinese tourists are leaning towards destinations with simpler visa processes.

    Chinese outbound tourism is steadily rebounding from the effects of the pandemic, with projections indicating a return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2025.

    Research conducted by Dragon Trail International suggests that China’s outbound tourism is expected to reach approximately 80% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year.

    According to China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, there were 3.6 million outbound trips taken during the Chinese new year period, which is just 57% of 2019’s 6.3 million trips.

    The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is emerging as a key destination for Chinese travelers, alongside traditionally popular outbound markets like Thailand and Malaysia, according to data from online travel agencies Ctrip, Tongcheng, Tuniu, Mafengwo, and Zuzuche.

    “The UAE’s visa-free policy for Chinese visitors, coupled with robust flight connections, contributes to its appeal,” said Sienna Parulis-Cook, director of marketing and communications of Dragon Trail.

    Chinese actress Liu Yifei was appointed as the tourism ambassador for UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, last year. The Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism showcased a promotional video featuring Liu on China’s equivalent of Twitter, Weibo. In a week, the video garnered 7.9 million views and was shared 32,000 times.

    Mafengwo’s list of top 20 outbound destinations with increasing demand for Chinese New Year compared to one year earlier includes the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and Morocco. All of these five countries offer visa-free entry or visas on arrival to Chinese citizens.

    Qunar reported that outbound orders for the UAE, Egypt, and Morocco were three times higher than the year before, with a 10-fold increase for Dubai.

    Fliggy reported that travel orders for Egypt increased by 15 times year on year. And Zuzuche’s top 10 outbound destinations with the highest growth rates for car rentals included Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

    Research by Oxford Economics suggests that outbound travel from China will nearly double in 2024 compared to the previous year, with the Middle East expected to lead the global recovery in Chinese inbound tourism.

    ForwardKeys’ data indicates that Chinese arrivals to the Middle East have already surpassed 2019 levels, with Cairo experiencing a notable increase in arrivals.

    The Arabian Travel Market in Dubai taking place from May 6 anticipates twice the number of Chinese exhibitors and travel professionals, compared to its 2019 show.

    Visa Relaxation

    Furthermore, the relaxation of visa requirements in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand has also contributed to increased Chinese tourist arrivals during the Chinese New Year break, as noted by Dragon Trail.

    “While 2023 was the year when China reopened following the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, it was only in 2024 that the country celebrated its first Chinese New Year with no pandemic-related restrictions on outbound travel,” Cook said.

    During the recent Chinese New Year period, data from Tourism Authority of Thailand showed that over 1 million international tourists visited Thailand, of which more than 200,000 were from China.

    Average spending by Chinese tourists increased by 15% from 2019 and the top visited cities in Thailand were Bangkok, Phuket, Chonburi, Chiangmai and Krabi.

    Similarly, Singapore and Malaysia saw a surge in travel bookings following the implementation of visa-free policies.

    Online travel agency Qunar reported that bookings for travel to Singapore were 29 times greater than in 2023, with bookings to Malaysia up by 20 times.

    Flight data reported by ForwardKeys showed a 24% year-on-year growth for Chinese arrivals to Kuala Lumpur.

    The Next Big Holiday Season

    While outbound trips taken during the new year period were just 57% of 2019 numbers, the domestic trips this year, surpassed pre-pandemic levels by 19%.

    Looking ahead, the upcoming five-day Labor Day holiday that begins from May 1 and the summer travel season are expected to further drive Chinese outbound tourism, with summer being the most popular time for international travel, according to Tongcheng.

    Photo Credit: The United Arab Emirates emerges as a popular destination for Chinese travelers.
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