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For years, China has been the gift that kept on giving to global tourism, sending millions of its citizens to explore, shop and snap selfies worldwide. Now, it's telling global travelers, "Your turn!" And if visa hassles are a deal-breaker, the country knows that removing them can only sweeten the deal.

China is opening its doors even wider to the world. Australia is now the latest country to join China’s expanding visa waiver program.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang made the announcement on Monday during an official visit to Australia, marking a significant step in strengthening ties between the two nations.

“We agreed to provide each other with reciprocal access to five-year multiple entry visas for tourism, business, and visiting family members to better facilitate personal exchanges. China will also include Australia in its visa waiver program,” stated Premier Qiang.

Australia’s national airline Qantas announced last month it was leaving Mainland China just six months after returning to the market. Speaking to Skift, the carrier’s International CEO said “Getting out of China at that point was the right call from our perspective.”

China has yet to detail the specifics of the new visa waiver arrangement, but the announcement closely follows a similar decision concerning New Zealand passport holders.

Just last Thursday, Premier Qiang declared visa-free entry for New Zealand citizens. “China is ready to discuss with New Zealand to introduce more measures to facilitate two-way travel,” Qiang mentioned, highlighting China’s move to ease travel restrictions.

In the past year, China has incrementally broadened its visa-free access to various countries.

China’s Visa-Free Travel Initiatives

In November, China introduced a one-year trial for visa-free travel for citizens of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Malaysia. In March, China expanded this program to include Ireland, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

China initially announced the visa-free policy for a trial period until November 30 this year, but has now extended it until December 31, 2025.

With the recent additions of Australia and New Zealand, the number of nations enjoying visa-free entry to China now totals 14. Passport holders from these countries can stay in China for up to 15 days for tourism, business, family visits, or transit purposes.

China also signed a 30-day mutual visa exemption agreement with Singapore and a similar arrangement with Thailand, effective March 1, allowing visa-free visits of up to 30 days per entry. It has also eased visa requirements for U.S. citizens visiting the country on tourist visas, removing the need to provide proof of round-trip air tickets, hotel reservations, itineraries, or invitation letters.

The Chinese government has also relaxed entry regulations for tourists arriving via cruise ships. As of May 15, such visitors can stay in China visa-free for up to 15 days.

China’s Inbound Recovery Lags Behind

The initiatives are part of a broader strategy to rejuvenate China’s tourism sector, which has been struggling to regain its pre-pandemic momentum.

China’s inbound recovery has been gradual. In 2023, China welcomed 35.5 million foreign visitors, which is only about 36% of the 97.7 million recorded in 2019.

However, Chinese online travel agency Trip.com Group notes promising signs of resurgence. During the Lunar New Year in February, the group reported a tenfold increase in inbound travel bookings compared to the previous year, with significant interest from Japan, the U.S., South Korea, Malaysia, Australia, the U.K., Canada, Vietnam, Germany and Thailand.

Moreover, Trip.com Group noted that international travelers are extending their stays in China. The average duration during the Spring Festival increased to just over two days, compared to under two days the previous year. The booking window for travel to China had also expanded from six days in 2023 to 39 days in 2024.

More Inbound Boosters

To further enhance the travel experience for international tourists, China has strengthened partnerships with major payment organizations like Ant Group and Mastercard. The International Consumer Friendly Zones program in Shanghai, has been launched in collaboration with 12 overseas payment partners of Alipay+ and other major international card organizations.

It aims to make transactions smoother for global travelers.

Statistics from the first quarter of this year show a threefold increase in foreign travelers to China compared to the same period in 2023. During this time, China issued 466,000 visas and documents to foreigners, marking a 119% year-on-year increase, and nearly 1.99 million foreigners entered China visa-free, a 266% year-on-year rise.

Highlighting the economic potential of inbound tourism, Jane Sun, CEO of Trip.com Group, stated, “China’s inbound tourism has huge potential, and if it is raised to the international median of 1.5% of GDP, it could yield a growth of over RMB 1.3 trillion ($179 billion).”

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Tags: alipay, asia monthly, australia, booking windows, china, china travel, Mastercard, new zealand, trip.com group, visa waiver, visas

Photo credit: China’s inbound recovery has been gradual. XiXinXing / Getty Images

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