Visa-free travel opens 'big door' to region

By PRIME SARMIENTO in Hong Kong and YANG WANLI in Bangkok| China Daily| Updated:  February 21, 2024 L M S

For millions of people across the Asia-Pacific region, traveling to and out of China is becoming easier than ever before.

University associate professor Sivakumar Kumaresan is hoping to return to Shangri-La in southwestern Yunnan province now that China has granted visa-free access to Malaysian travelers. The 50-something Malaysian visited the city in 2017 and describes it as "one of the most beautiful places I've been to".

And now that he doesn't have to go through the hassle of applying for a visa, Sivakumar is also keen to go to Beijing to visit his extended family.

Like many citizens of the multicultural Southeast Asian nation, Sivakumar is of mixed race, the son of an ethnic Chinese mother and an ethnic Indian father. "I do wish to visit Beijing (to know more about its) history, plus I've got family there," said Sivakumar who teaches chemical engineering at Universiti Malaysia Sabah.

Sivakumar is just one of the growing number of Malaysians who are planning to go to China after authorities announced in November that Malaysian tourists will be allowed to enter the country for up to 15 days without a visa. Uzaidi Udanis, chairman of the Malaysia Inbound Tourism Alliance, said travel agents have seen "a lot of movement from Malaysia to China" since December.

Uzaidi said that Malaysians are keen to not only explore China but also to see their relatives.

Since Dec 1, Malaysia has extended visa-free access to travelers from China with the policy to be in place until the end of 2024. Uzaidi expects it will lead to an influx of Chinese tourists, noting that a growing number of Chinese businesspeople are going to Malaysia on weekends just to play golf.

He said the visa-free policy won't only benefit the travel and tourism industry but the national economy as well, as it will encourage more businesspeople to invest in Malaysia."Tourism is a big door for us to (encourage more) people-to-people connection," Uzaidi told China Daily.

It's this "big door" that Malaysia and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations wanted to open when they started allowing Chinese travelers visa-free entry.

Apart from Malaysia, Singapore on Jan 25 signed a visa-exemption agreement with China. The agreement commenced on Feb 9 in time for the Chinese New Year holiday.

Thailand and China on Jan 28 signed off on mutual visa exemptions starting on March 1.

Indonesia is planning to extend visa-free access to tourists from 20 countries, including China.

"The introduction of the visa-free policy, coupled with promotion on social media, holds significant importance as it is expected to attract a larger pool of potential Chinese tourists, igniting their interest and willingness to explore these four nations," Puvaneswaran Kunasekaran, a senior social and development sciences lecturer at the Universiti Putra Malaysia, told China Daily.

Attracting more visitors

Maybank Investment Bank forecast that among ASEAN countries, tourist arrivals will likely be closest to pre-pandemic levels in Malaysia thanks to its visa waivers for Chinese and Indian tourists and the weaker ringgit, which is also attracting more visitors from neighboring Singapore.

The Kuala Lumpur-based lender said visa waivers for Chinese travels would also increase tourist arrivals in Singapore, noting that the city-state is popular with Chinese tourists due to its cultural familiarity, strong safety record and "close people ties". Ethnic Chinese account for over 70 percent of Singapore's 5.6 million people.

Maybank sees a slightly slower recovery in the tourism industries of Vietnam and Indonesia. Both countries have not yet granted visa waivers for Chinese and Indian tourists, but authorities are mulling the move.

The Chinese market has long been the biggest source of tourists for ASEAN countries — as the region is not only geographically close but has strong cultural and economic ties with China. In the first half of 2023,China was the largest source of non-ASEAN visitors to the region, accounting for 8.2 percent of the 46.5 million arrivals, according to the latest data from the ASEAN Secretariat.

The Singapore-based ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office said in its January report that tourism boosted ASEAN's service exports in 2023.

"Reflecting seasonal factors as well as the gradual return of Chinese tourists, ASEAN+3 visitor arrivals have stabilized at around 80 percent of their pre-pandemic levels between September and November," the office said.

The ASEAN+3 group includes China, Japan, South Korea and the 10 ASEAN members — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Business benefits

The visa-free policy will not only boost Chinese arrivals in ASEAN but also help increase Chinese investment in the region, experts said.

Norman Bin Muhamad, Malaysia's ambassador to China, told China Daily that his country is aiming to attract 5 million Chinese tourist arrivals every year through the new visa-free policy. Before the pandemic, over 3 million Chinese tourists visited Malaysia in 2019.

According to Ibrahim Suffian, co-founder and director of programs at the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, the Malaysian government is pursuing more business investment from China. He said visa-free travel will encourage greater communication between Chinese and Malaysian businesspeople.

"China is Malaysia's biggest trading partner so there's already a great deal of travel between the residents of these two countries," Ibrahim told China Daily. He said the mutual visa-free travel policy won't only strengthen trade relations, but also people-to-people exchanges between China and Malaysia.

Both the Chinese and Thai governments are optimistic that the mutual visa-exemption policy will encourage more people-to-people exchanges.

Veen Nornapporn, a Bangkok-based property consultant, is looking forward to the mutual visa exemption as she is eager to return to China. Veen has traveled to Yunnan and is keen to visit Shanghai and Beijing in the near future.

"Thai people love traveling and we are very curious about China, its culture, history, scenery and also the food. Chinese mala is now very popular among young people in Thailand," Veen said, alluding to a spicy seasoning made from Sichuan peppercorn and chile.

She said China is one of the most popular destinations among Thais because of its proximity and close family connections. About 10 percent of Thailand's more than 71 million people are ethnic Chinese.

Apart from the visa-free policy, the Thai government also announced plans recently to launch a "Muay Thai" visa to attract more visitors and promote Thai martial arts worldwide.

Foreign tourists who want to learn Muay Thai at gyms certified by the Sports Authority of Thailand can apply for a non-immigration educational visa at Thai embassies. Once foreign tourists arrive in Thailand, they are eligible to stay for up to 90 days if they are enrolled at a certified training center.

"All those policies are an incentive to the travel industry from both of the countries. Outbound tourism in China has recovered gradually since last year," said Guan Jian, spokesman of GZL International Travel Service, adding that Southeast Asia is still a popular choice with Chinese tourists.

Inbound tourism boost

Guangzhou-based GZL, a major travel agency in southern Guangdong province, was one of the first travel agencies to organize group tours to Thailand after China announced the resumption of outbound group tour services at the beginning of last year. The tours had been suspended for three years due to the pandemic.

Guan said the number of visitors to Thailand grew steadily last year, although the rate of recovery is still below expectations owing to some tourists' personal safety concerns. The mass shooting at Siam Paragon Mall in Bangkok on Oct 3 that left two tourists dead, and car accidents involving Chinese tourists have discouraged some Chinese travelers from going to Thailand.

According to Maybank, those safety concerns have restricted the potential rebound of Chinese visitors to Thailand. However, Maybank noted Thailand's strong push to attract tourists from other countries is paying off, with an influx of visitors from India, Malaysia, Russia and South Korea.

While Guan is confident that the visa-free policy will encourage more Chinese tourists to come to Thailand, he also issued a note of caution."Thailand is facing more competitors as many countries have also offered or are ready to offer visa-free policy to Chinese tourists," he said.

On the other hand, he is very optimistic about the potential of China's inbound tourism under the mutual visa-exemption policy. In 2023,GZL's branch in Hainan province served more than 10,000 foreign tourists under visa-free policies from about 70 countries, he said.

"China is a large country, the visa exemption will definitely stimulate the growth of inbound tourism. Travelers can have various options and experience the diversity of China in many more places and each route will be unique and impressive," Guan said.

In Indonesia, I Putu Winastra, chairman of the Bali chapter of the Association of Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies, said the visa-free policy will encourage more tourists to stay longer and spend more. He added that this will encourage a greater number of tourists to visit other places in Indonesia aside from popular hot spots like the resort island of Bali.

Leonardus Jegho in Jakarta contributed to this story.