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Adjustments sought in 72-hour visa-free policy
By Hu Min

The 72-hour visa-free stay policy for international transit passengers has not turned into quite the bonanza that many Shanghai tour operators had expected, they said.

The policy, which came into effect on January 1, allows citizens from 45 countries with a valid passport to stay in the city for a maximum of 72 hours while waiting for a connecting flight. It extended the period of visa-free stay in the city from 48 to 72 hours for passengers passing through on their way to other destinations.

The 45 foreign countries include Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, South Korea and Japan, and applicants should notify their airlines, which apply for the visa-free stays with the local immigration authorities. A flight ticket with definite information of destination, date and boarding pass are needed.

About 8,300 visitors have benefited from the visa-free service as of September 1, up by about seven times from last year, when foreigners were granted only 48-hour visa-free stays, and the figure is rising steadily, according to the Shanghai Exit and Entry Frontier Inspection authorities. Some 1,300 visitors took advantage of the policy in August, a surge of 95 percent from January and a monthly record since the policy was introduced.

The Shanghai border inspection authorities said they received the largest number of overseas travelers who have benefited from the policy from the United States, and the number reached about 1,200, followed by Australians, New Zealanders and Germans.

Tourism market sees little benefit

The 72-hour visa-free policy has significantly spurred visitors from developed countries to visit and stay in the city and boosted passenger volumes, and the trend of a steady rise should continue, border inspection authorities said.

However, despite the triumphant figures, the stimulation of the much-anticipated policy in the city’s tourism market is not encouraging.

Some one-day or two-day tour packages covering major scenic spots in the city specially targeting this group of tourists have not sold well, said Yang Guoxi, an official with the Shanghai Tourism Administration.

The majority of visa-free policy beneficiaries in Shanghai are on business trips, which is the major reason, Yang said.

This group of people have been to the city many times, and don’t have enough time to explore local tourist attractions amid conferences.

These travel products are being redeveloped to lure more tourists, Yang said.

Local travel agencies that saw the policy as a golden opportunity to boost tourism and held high expectations for it at first are not happy now.

The Shanghai Travel Service Co received about 30,000 overseas tourists in the first quarter of this year, but it said it had not received any tourist who took advantage of the policy so far. The Shanghai China Youth Travel Service said it received one American couple who used the policy in late March, while Shanghai Jinjiang Travel also said it only received one tourist who enjoyed the policy.

Experts said European and American businessmen are the major group who use the visa-free policy, but they don’t want to take advantage of business time and money to travel individually. Some people on business trips are allowed to see sights, but most of them are familiar with Shanghai, and they may book hotels and vehicles themselves and tour alone rather than booking packages of travel agencies, said Zhong Xin, general manager with Shanghai China Youth Travel Service.

Push for cruise passengers

There are growing calls for the visa-free policy to be introduced to ports as the city is gearing up in promoting its cruise businesses.

Currently, passengers of cruise ships need to apply for multiple entry visas if their cruise ships berth in several spots in China because the policy cannot be applied to ports.

That policy is not convenient for passengers and not good for the city’s cruise tourism industry, said Shanghai Vice Mayor Zhao Wen during the annual session of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, suggesting an expansion of areas that the policy covers. 

In 2012, the city received 118 cruise ships, up 13 percent from a year earlier, and the number of cruise ship tourists soared by 48 percent, reaching 380,000.

Shanghai aims to become a cruise ship hub in the East Asia region and a cruise ship center equal to the position of Singapore and Hong Kong in Asia-Pacific region by the end of 2015.

Still, the policy is welcomed by hotels.

“From an hotelier’s point of view, this policy will encourage more short-haul travels and shall benefit local and international hotels from all segments in Beijing in the long run,” said Alex Kassatly, general manager of Conrad Beijing, calling the policy encouraging.

“Other than the increasing convenience for leisure travelers, this new policy will also make it easier for business travelers from international companies who have to come to Beijing for a meeting or conference to move on to the next destination. The 72-hour visa free policy really ease the administrative pressure when you have to prepare for multiple trips.”

Mun Hee Park, director of marketing of Shanghai Marriott Hotel Changfeng Park, said it is “a good opportunity to attract more business travelers or tourists in the future once this is well known by others.

“But it still need to let people know clear information,” Mun said.

Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Chengdu are the four cities that offer the visa-free service with Kunming in Yunnan Province expected to do so soon.

Starting this month, Chengdu is implementing the 72-hour free visa transit policy.

It is the fourth city, and the first in western China, to introduce the visa-free policy, following Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Fu Yonglin, vice mayor of Chengdu, said the 72-hour visa-free policy shows the central government’s support for Chengdu’s openness.

“A loose visa policy is a major sign of a city’s openness,” said Fu. “It also is an established practice internationally to boost tourism and business.”

Unlike Shanghai, the policy is expected to play a bigger role in boosting tourism in cities like Chengdu and Kunming with abundant tourism resources.

The visa-free policy should encourage more overseas tourists and business people to visit Chengdu, thus prompting more airlines to offer more air services, said Tang Jiqiang, a researcher at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics.

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