ONCE upon a time, Chinese had to provide a number of documents, go through an intricate procedure and endure long waits for tourist visas to various countries. Even after jumping through all the hoops, there was no guarantee a visa would be issued.
But now, this is gradually becoming a thing of the past.
A number of European countries including Italy, the United Kingdom, France and Germany have all improved visa services this year. It’s part of new incentives to lure Chinese tourists to their respective countries.
Some Asian countries have also offered incentives to entice Chinese tourists. Thailand has waived its 230 yuan (US$37) visa fee for Chinese mainland visitors from August to October to boost tourism.
Other countries also plan to offer various incentives. For example, South Korea plans to open online access for tour group visa applications from next year.
China’s position as one the world’s biggest outbound tourism markets was consolidated last year. About 98.19 million mainland tourists went overseas, up 18 percent from a year earlier, according to a report released by the China Tourism Academy in June.
Chinese tourists are now the biggest spenders worldwide, spending US$128.56 billion while abroad, an increase of 26.8 percent from 2012.
The academy estimated 116 million Chinese would travel abroad this year, rising 18.2 percent from last year due to an improving economy and easier visa access.
Dai Bin, president of the academy, said China has developed into the No. 1 source country of tourists in the world and a new engine boosting the world’s tourism market.
Overseas trips have now become a part of the middle class lifestyle in China, he said.
Beginning on August 11, the British Embassy in Beijing announced a 24-hour “super priority” visa service to visitors applying in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. The service, at 600 pounds (US$1,019), is open to all business, family and general visitors who have evidence of a good travel record to the UK, United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada or 26 other European countries within the last five years.
“China is the UK’s largest visa market and the number of business travelers and tourists we welcome continues to grow — demand for visitor visas increased by 40 percent in the last year alone,” said UK’s Immigration and Security Minister James Brokenshire.
“We want to make sure that we offer our Chinese customers a world class service and we will continue to make improvements so that our visa system is as efficient as possible.”
Earlier, Italy simplified its visa application procedures for Chinese tourists and business people. It also shortened the visa processing time from one to two weeks down to 36 hours.
France also announced early this year that it has shortened visa processing from 10 working days to 48 hours.
Chinese can get a visa to Germany within three days.
Shanghai Datong Travel Agency said the it has organized double the number of trips to Thailand in August after the 230 yuan visa application fee was waived for Chinese. Online travel operator Ctrip said it received a 200 percent increase in tourists who applied for a visa to Thailand after the fee exemption.
Thailand has been the top overseas destination for group tours from Shanghai for the past three years, with more than 450,000 visiting the country last year. The most popular destinations are Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket. It was also the No. 2 overseas destination for Chinese group tours last year, following South Korea.
Ctrip also said it’s now easier for travel agencies to organize trips to several European countries.
Spring Tour said it had a 10 percent increase in tourists booking trips to Europe this year. It said France, Italy and Switzerland have remained some of the most popular European destinations, adding tour packages to the UK and Eastern Europe have sold very well this year.
Shanghai Datong said although rising air ticket prices and several air tragedies affected the summer market, European trips will rebound in September and October.
Chinese often prefer visiting several European countries in one trip with France, Italy and Switzerland the most common route, said Pan Yong, director of the outbound department of Datong.
Online travel operator Lvmama said tour packages to Europe have been popular these days, with the upcoming National Day holiday the most preferred time for Chinese to book a trip. Sales of overseas packages suitable for families with children surged 40 percent this summer compared with the same period last year, it said.
Ctrip said more countries will eventually simplify visa procedures for Chinese as the economy continues to grow, further promoting overseas trips.
As of July, 49 countries and regions have implemented visa-free or visa-on-arrival policies for Chinese tourists.
Seychelles and Mauritius are among the countries that have visa-free policies for certain periods of stay. Maldives, Indonesia, Nepal and Iran are some of the countries that have visa-on-arrival policies for Chinese with passports. Such travelers need to provide their round-trip flight details and accommodation information to receive a visa.