So that’s it. Pandemic over. After three years, the last major country still hosting Covid travel restrictions lifted them. China is open to tourists again. The Great Wall is calling. The Terracotta Warriors extend a welcoming hand.
Apart from Tibet and Xinjiang, where special permits would still need to be obtained, travelers can now go anywhere in China, even Wuhan. Although officially, nothing of note has ever come out of that city.
Since Wednesday’s announcement of the full reopening of the border, the practicalities of planning a vacation to China have returned to their pre-pandemic state. Namely annoying but relatively simple.
Apply for an ‘L’ tourist visa by attending an appointment at the Chinese Visa Center in London, showing proof of return flights and hotel reservations and having your fingerprints taken. UK travelers are still required to submit the results of a PCR test taken within 48 hours of flying, but that requirement too will likely be lifted soon.
Various visa-free travel hacks in China have also been reinstated, certainly not well publicized before Covid. If you’re just passing through (i.e. you can show onward flights from China to a third country), you can get 6 days of visa-free travel to cities including Beijing and Shanghai, and a 5-day visa on arrival in Shenzhen, especially useful if you comes from Hong Kong. Cruise passengers don’t need a visa for Shanghai (provided you leave on the same boat you sailed on) and travelers heading to “Chinese Hawaii,” Hainan’s holiday island, get 30 days of travel without view.
But what can travelers expect when they arrive? Perhaps most notable is what they won’t encounter. Gone are the armies of flame-coated “great whites” with their probing pads, gone are the Covid detention hotels, testing centers, fences, “health code” monitoring apps, and all the other tools of pandemic control that probably ‘t make for a relaxing vacation. My friends who have landed in China in the past few days report that few people are wearing masks.
There are some new things to see, of course. Beijing now has Universal Studios, Shanghai a sleek new art gallery, the Pudong Museum of Art, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. Perhaps the best news for travelers is the overhaul of ticketing on Chinese trains, which was launched just a month before the pandemic.
International passengers can now book train journeys online using English-language websites such as Trip.com and simply scan their passport to board, eliminating the need to queue at crowded stations and endure linguistically intense exchange at the ticket office.
Otherwise, for those already familiar with the country it should look business-as-usual. Large international hotels have weathered the storm by focusing on the healthy domestic vacation market. Mark Passmore, the British general manager of the posh Shanghai hotel The Middle House, tells me about “Pawcations,” introduced during the pandemic to tempt pet owners and their animals. He must have done the trick: Passmore says 2021 has been the hotel’s strongest year since opening in 2018.
But many small hotels have taken a big hit. Places like Beijing’s The Orchid, with its dozens of rustic rooms tucked away in a hutong (the name of the capital’s old alleyways), attract almost entirely foreign guests, of which it has had none in three years except for the occasional expat couple in living room.
Focusing on Chinese guests provided a respite, but unpredictable Covid restrictions in the capital meant things could be turned around without warning. “A few times we’ve had to call all of our guests and cancel their reservations,” says Canadian owner Joel Shuchat. To make matters worse, Shuchat found himself barred from China when all visas were blocked, forcing him to manage the hotel remotely via Zoom.
Three years of fallow inflicted death with a thousand cuts to other travel services that catered to foreign visitors. In 2022, Airbnb canceled all its listings in China and left the market. Domestic rival apps like Tujia are Chinese-only, making them as useful to foreign tourists as Didi, the ride-hailing app that took over when Uber left China in 2016. Which is to say, unusable.
Even the ticket office of the Forbidden City, which moved online to Weixin, an app, shortly before the Covid, does not accept bank cards or non-Chinese payment systems such as Apple and Google. It’s such a hassle, not to mention error-prone, that friends in the travel industry tell me it’s advisable to hire a local tour guide for the day so they can handle it for you.
Unfortunately, now there are even fewer of them. Bespoke Travel Company, founded in 2011 by former Time Out editor Sarah Keenlyside, offered high-end tours for international visitors and the occasional A-list celebrity, along with chauffeured transfers to the Great Wall and one-of-a-kind experiences like tai chi classes at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. In 2022, Keenlyside was forced to go out of business and leave China, letting most of her office staff go.
“We had to tour so many times during Covid it was exhausting,” says Keenlyside, who notes that nearly all of Bespoke Travel Company’s “brightest and best” tour guides have since found other jobs, one becoming an embassy security guard. “Maybe they’ll come back,” he says, “but the travel industry would need to make a fiery comeback for it to be worth yet another career change.”
And that’s the million yuan question. Will international travel to China make a comeback? What about the damage to China’s global reputation over the past three years, the Covid cover-up, the Shanghai lockdowns, the limitless friendship between Xi and Putin announced on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine? For those who have never visited and only read the headlines, who could blame them for lumping China with countries like Russia and North Korea as bogeymen destinations to stay away from? Will people actually want to visit after all that has happened, not to mention the frightening specter of a potential confrontation over Taiwan in the future?
Andy Eastham of Wendy Wu Tours, the UK’s largest tour operator in China, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, believes so. “The appetite and demand for China is still there, it’s very strong if not stronger,” says Eastham, noting a month-over-month increase in Chinese inquiries since the beginning of the year. Clients who had booked tours to China for 2020 have been holding on to their bookings, he says, and are finally leaving this year.
Larger outfits like Wendy Wu were better insulated from restrictions by being able to take guests to other parts of the world while overcoming restrictions in China. And because they have their own field operating company, Eastham says they’ve been able to keep staff, ready for the new wave of touring. The first of which, a “Wonders of China” tour, is scheduled to take place as early as May.
Eastham even optimistically suggests that Covid, rather than deterring people from traveling to China, may have had the opposite effect. Being unable to go anywhere while at the same time coming face to face with our own mortality, destinations like China – distant and glamorous with world famous sights – have only added to their appeal. “China is one of those iconic, must-see places,” says Eastham. “You see photos of the Great Wall, but nothing compares to climbing it.”