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China’s strict visa rules, travel restrictions, and dirty air are repelling foreign tourists

Reuters/Guang Niu
China doesn’t make visiting the Forbidden City easy.
By Lily Kuo
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

China is promoting 2015 as “Silk Road tourism year,” hoping to attract visitors to stops along the ancient trading route in the northwest of the country. But recent numbers show that steep visa fees, cumbersome rules for tourists, and bad pollution are steadily pushing China down on the list of top tourist destinations. As Quartz reported this week, inbound tourism to China has been slowing, with only two cities (Shenzhen and Guangzhou) among the world’s 100 most popular cities for tourists.

In fact, China has been losing tourists for years. (Meanwhile, Chinese tourists are going abroad in record numbers, spending an unprecedented $164.8 billion last year.) According to data from China’s National Tourism Administration, the country saw 116.9 million arrivals from January to November last year, down around 1% from the year before:

The dip may be in part because the number of foreign tourists going to China (excluding people from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan) has been falling since 2012. Last year, 24 million tourist arrivals were by visitors holding a foreign passport; meanwhile, there were more than 69 million from Hong Kong alone.

That may be because China doesn’t make it easy for foreigners to visit. Single-entry tourist visas cost around $160 and applicants first have to submit plane tickets and a complete travel itinerary. Once foreigners arrive in China, they must register with the local police station or face fines and possible detention. Parts of the country like Tibet and Xinjiang are off-limits to foreign tourists unless they travel with a government-approved travel agency.

Things may be about to better, at least on the visa front. China and the United States have struck a deal to offer 10-year multiple entry tourist visas. Now that the United Kingdom has also relaxed some of its visa rules for Chinese visitors, British citizens may soon receive similar treatment.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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