China resumes group tours to US, UK, Japan

Beijing on Thursday lifted a Covid-era ban on outbound group tours to dozens of countries including the United States and Japan, a move that could see crowds of Chinese tourists return to destinations around the world.

China cut itself off from the world in 2020 as part of a strict zero-Covid strategy, using visa suspensions and lengthy quarantines to curb the import of virus cases into the country.

Thursday’s announcement is the latest move towards reopening, after the Chinese government dropped its containment measures abruptly in December.

“From now on, travel agencies across the country and online travel companies will resume operating outbound group tours” to more than 70 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Japan and South Korea, the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism said in a statement.

Among numerous others, the list also gave the green light for trips to most European Union member states, India, Pakistan, and Australia.

The inclusion of Australia coincides with a thawing in the frostiness between Canberra and Beijing that has dominated relations over the last few years.

Last week, China announced it was removing extra tariffs on Australian barley imposed in 2020 at the height of a bitter dispute with the then-conservative government over issues including China’s overseas influence operations.

Chinese tour groups had already received permission to visit a small number of countries earlier this year under a trial programme, including tourist magnets Thailand, Italy and France.

The tourism ministry on Thursday said outbound tourism had been developing in a stable manner since the start of the trial period, “playing a positive role in promoting tourism exchanges and cooperation”.

China had the largest outbound tourism market in the world in 2019, with mainland Chinese residents taking 155 million trips abroad that year, according to consulting firm McKinsey.

That outflow narrowed to a trickle in the past three years as Chinese authorities restricted passport renewals and cut international flights in a bid to deter travel.

“Currently, international passenger flights continue to resume, and the desire of Chinese people to travel abroad is increasing,” the foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

In early December, Chinese authorities effectively ended the country’s regime of mass testing, lockdowns and long quarantines — but the abrupt reversal led to a spike in Covid cases.

Beijing announced in late December that inbound travellers to the country would no longer need to quarantine from January 8, but kept in place visa restrictions on foreigners.

China resumed issuing a range of visas to foreigners in March, but inbound tourism remains at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) is a French international news agency headquartered in Paris, France. Founded in 1835 as Havas, it is the world's oldest news agency.

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