Is China’s inbound international tourism poised for a revival?

    China’s efforts to attract more foreign travelers are yielding promising results: Alipay saw a significant surge in transactions made by foreign visitors in the country last month.
    Shanghai recorded 358,300 foreign tourists in January this year. Photo: Shutterstock
      Published   in Travel

    What happened

    The amount of transactions made by foreign visitors in China last month via Alipay grew tenfold year on year, with transaction volume and active user numbers rising nearly eightfold and sixfold, respectively, according to the country’s most popular payment platform.

    Foreign tourists in China connecting their international bank cards to Alipay hailed from nearly 200 countries and regions, with South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, the US, Japan, Thailand, Germany, Australia, the UK, and Indonesia comprising the top-10 source countries, in order.

    The Jing Take

    Post-pandemic China has suffered from low tourism numbers due to a multitude of factors.

    The reopening of its borders has not been without challenges. Hindered by factors such as limited international flights, along with difficulties in obtaining visas and accessing mobile payments, international inbound tourism has only recovered to 43 percent of its 2019 level, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

    But attempts are underway to solve this problem. The country has been steadily rolling out policies to bolster inbound tourism since last summer. These include introducing a visa-free entry policy for six European countries in late 2023 and for Thailand and Singapore ahead of the 2024 Spring Festival. China has reached comprehensive visa exemption agreements with 23 countries and regions worldwide, including Malaysia, the Maldives, Belarus, and the United Arab Emirates.

    Strict verification policies had often prevented foreign visitors in China from using mobile payment platforms. Now, to make online payments easier for foreign visitors, China’s two biggest online payment platforms, Alipay and WeChat Pay, upgraded their services in June last year to accommodate overseas credit cards. The move better enables foreigners to navigate a mobile-first nation like China.

    According to the Shanghai Statistics Bureau, in January this year, the number of international inbound tourists passing through Shanghai ports, as well as other ports in China to Shanghai, reached 358,300, an increase of 503.9 percent compared to 2023. Foreign tourists accounted for 71 percent of that number, with residents from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan making up the remainder.

    While challenges persist — for example, international flights are still at 89 percent of 2019’s level, and US-China geopolitical tensions are growing ahead of the US presidential election — the number of inbound international tourists is poised to continue upward this year.

    The Jing Take reports on a piece of the leading news and presents our editorial team’s analysis of the key implications for the luxury industry. In the recurring column, we analyze everything from product drops and mergers to heated debate sprouting on Chinese social media.

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