According to the China National Tourism Administration, from January to September 2015, 3.57 million Europeans and 2.3 million North Americans visited China, out of just less than 19 million foreign arrivals. That number is part of a measly one percent growth rate that China tourism has managed over the past decade, at least for the years where clear statistics are available.
A lack of appeal
Part of the problem is what’s on offer. China is a hardcore cultural trek with a significant language barrier. Whether as part of a group, for the business traveler, or the independent visitor, China is a tough destination from the moment of arrival. Taxi drivers don’t speak English, and rip-offs are routine. That’s the case even though hotel infrastructure at almost every level is now international standard.
Then there’s the pollution. While China is home to a few of the world’s most polluted cities according to the World Health Organization, Beijing and Shanghai aren’t among them. Thanks to copious news coverage of every “airpocalypse” that descends upon Beijing especially that city has become as synonymous with choking pollution much as Dickensian London was associated with juvenile crime and cruelty. Not a big boost for tourism when the city is referred to as “the big smoke.”
Visa program has fallen short
Measures designed to make travel to parts of China beyond Beijing or Shanghai have been largely unsuccessful. Since 2013, Beijing has offered visa-free, 72-hour stays to passport holders from about 50 nations. However, despite having a target of 20,000 travelers per year, the program has fallen short, attracting only 14,000 its first year.
Part of the problem is bureaucratic. Single entry, double entry, and multiple-entry visas for U.S. passport holders all cost USD 140 and require four business days to process. Visa applications must be made in person or by an authorized agent. Travelers are required to show both air ticket and hotel reservations at the time of application.
The remaining issues are psychological. China remains a very safe destination for travelers (except for the usual tourist rip-offs), and foreign guests on the whole are treated well. However, the demonization of China during the 2016 U.S. presidential election cast the country in a bad light as a stealer of American jobs and technology.
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