Can Cuba’s visa waiver trigger a Chinese tourism boom in LATAM?

    Despite the allure of diverse cultures, landscapes, and historical heritage, Latin and South American countries face significant challenges in attracting more Chinese tourists.
    Chinese actor Xia Yu in Peru. Image: Voyage magazine
      Published   in Travel

    In early May, Juan Carlos García Granda, Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, announced that Chinese citizens with ordinary passports can now enter Cuba visa-free, adding that direct flights between mainland China and the Caribbean nation would begin tomorrow. Currently, Air China offers two flights per week from Beijing to Havana, with a stopover in Madrid, priced from around RMB 10,000 ($1,412) round-trip.

    Just half an hour after García Granda’s announcement, Ctrip reported a more than 40% increase in searches for Cuban hotels and flights to Cuba, with particularly high volumes seen in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Tianjin, Shandong, and Fujian.

    According to Qin Jing, Vice President of Ctrip Group, Cuba has yet to emerge as a popular destination for Chinese outbound tourists – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the distance and cost of visiting the country, and the myriad options for island holidays available to Chinese travelers. However, Qin notes, destinations like Cuba, Mexico and Brazil hold appeal due to their unique cultural and natural landscapes.

    Following the lead of other countries – among them Malaysia and Singapore – that have recently seen a boost in Chinese tourism after enacting visa-free policies, Cuba may become more enticing for adventurous travelers.

    According to Chinese travel platform Qunar, most Chinese tourists visiting Cuba stick to Havana and Varadero, and typically bundle Cuba into a 14-day tour of three other countries: Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama.

    Culture and nature: the draw of Peru#

    Cuba’s loosening of visa restrictions could set a precedent for other nations in the region to harness China’s outbound tourism revival. Currently, the only countries in the Americas to offer visa-free access to Chinese tourists are Barbados, the Bahamas, Ecuador, Dominica, Grenada, and Suriname.

    Yet, the appeal of Latin America and Brazil among China’s more adventurous travelers is on an upswing, powered by better flight connections and wider knowledge of what the continent has to offer. In particular, nature-minded Chinese travelers are becoming more interested in the Amazon rainforest, Argentina’s Iguazú Falls, and the Andes mountains.

    In the run-up to the pandemic, Peru saw a steady increase in Chinese tourist arrivals, in no small part because of changes to its visa policy. In 2016, Peru waived visa requirements for Chinese nationals who held permanent residency in Australia, Canada, the UK, the US, or the Schengen Area.

    Two years later, Peru saw nearly 38,000 Chinese tourist arrivals, up from around 20,000 in 2016. By 2019, this had increased to 41,067.

    Post-pandemic, this momentum has gradually returned. According to José Carlos Collazos of PromPerú – the Commission for the Promotion of Peru for Exports and Tourism – 8,302 Chinese tourists visited Peru in the first three months of 2024, a year-on-year increase of 189%. Over the course of the year, PromPerú expects Chinese tourist arrivals to increase 35% over 2023, without providing specific figures.

    According to PromPerú, Chinese tourists typically stay for up to 11 nights in Peru and travel primarily to enjoy culture and nature, along with the country’s famed gastronomy.

    “Chinese travelers are eagerly looking to visit Peru as their next post-pandemic destination, especially because of our rich tapestry of culture, breathtaking landscapes and vibrant heritage,” says PromPerú’s Collazos.

    To help potential Chinese visitors better visualize what they could expect to see in Peru, PromPerú recently teamed up with the Chinese luxury travel magazine Voyage for a special edition that featured Chinese actor Xia Yu exploring several of Peru’s top tourist destinations.

    Xia Yu at Macchu Picchu. Image: Voyage
    Xia Yu at Macchu Picchu. Image: Voyage

    Tourism domino effect#

    Cuba’s new visa-free policy could spread throughout — and beyond Latin America. There are signs that Brazil, which boasts substantial tourism infrastructure and trumpets deep ties with Beijing, could benefit from easing visa restrictions. Well-known in China for its Carnival festival, culinary culture, and iconic beaches, Brazil stands to gain from China’s new generation of cultural and gastronomic-focused millennial and Gen Z travelers.

    Compared to other popular destinations in Europe and North America, Brazil is vastly under-visited by Chinese tourists. The country saw just over 42,000 Chinese tourist arrivals last year, far less than the 382,207 who visited Spain and 439,000 who traveled to the US.

    Looking to boost travel between the two countries, Brazil and China signed an agreement earlier this year to extend the validity of bilateral tourist and business visas to 10 years, up from five.

    Undoubtedly, part of the reason for so few Chinese tourists visiting Brazil is the vast distance between the two countries. However, the recent resumption of the one-stop Beijing-Madrid-São Paulo route could attract more intrepid travelers. At the moment, direct flights between China and Latin and South America are few and far between, with China Southern’s new Shenzhen-to-Mexico City route one of only a handful available to Chinese travelers.

    Countries known for their natural beauty and adventure tourism, namely Chile and Argentina, are also poised to attract more Chinese outdoors enthusiasts. The diverse landscapes in both countries, ranging from the Atacama Desert to Patagonian glaciers, appeal to those seeking unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

    Brazil is eager to greatly increase Chinese tourist arrivals. Image: Getty Images
    Brazil is eager to greatly increase Chinese tourist arrivals. Image: Getty Images

    Uphill battle for visitors#

    Despite growing opportunity and interest among China’s more intrepid travelers, Latin and South American countries face considerable challenges in attracting more Chinese tourists. Despite the clear allure of diverse cultures and landscapes, several factors significantly hinder their competitiveness on the global stage.

    One of the obvious challenges is the vast geographical distance between China and Latin America, which typically requires a stopover in Europe or North America. Today, the long and expensive journey deters many of China’s most adventurous travelers – who are likely younger, more active, and less affluent than those traveling to well-worn places like Italy, Thailand, or the Maldives.

    Language barriers further dissuade many Chinese tourists potentially interested in visiting Latin and South America. As of 2021, China had only around 50,000 Spanish speakers, and few Portuguese speakers outside of Macau. Considering China has an estimated 100,000 French speakers and hundreds of millions of English speakers with varying degrees of fluency, a lack of familiarity with Spanish and Portuguese poses a major obstacle.

    In addition, the perception of safety is crucial for Chinese tourists, especially those traveling with children or older relatives. Owing to perceptions of high crime in places like Brazil or Mexico, potential visitors may turn instead to other destinations seen as less risky – such as Singapore, Australia, or Switzerland.

    Finally, the flow of Chinese tourists is generally consistent with the strength of economic and diplomatic relationships between China and destination countries. Naturally, those with stronger ties and agreements, such as visa exemptions, generally see more tourist traffic, while some – like the handful of countries in the region that maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan – will continue to see a negligible number of mainland Chinese tourist arrivals.

    As the example of Brazil and Cuba indicate, efforts to deepen business and diplomatic ties could be one of the key drivers of a tourism bump in the post-pandemic period.

    • Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, announced visa-free entry for Chinese citizens with ordinary passports, effective immediately, with direct flights starting May 17.
    • The announcement led to a significant increase in searches for Cuban hotels and flights on Ctrip, indicating strong interest from Chinese tourists.
    • Deepening business and diplomatic ties between China and countries like Mexico and Brazil could lead to greater interest in the region among China’s resurgent outbound tourists.
    • Countries looking to capture the Chinese outbound tourist market should consider developing tailored marketing strategies that highlight unique cultural experiences and ensure accessibility and address common concerns such as language barriers and safety.
    • Moving forward, Cuba’s new visa policy could serve as a model for other Latin American nations, potentially leading to a broader increase in Chinese tourism across the region.
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