He Quan, a 35-year-old private driver based in Lijiang, Yunnan, spends eight hours daily transporting passengers to the province’s renowned attractions, such as snow-capped mountains, scenic lakes, and deep gorges. Although He did not disclose his earnings, it is understood that each trip ranges from 150 to 1,000 yuan (US$21 to US$140). Known as “Ah Quan Shifu” to his clients, his business previously catered exclusively to domestic travelers. However, in recent months, he has started serving Chinese-speaking tourists from Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore and Malaysia, about four to five times a month. This new clientele, although currently making up less than 10% of his overall business, provides additional income.

Expanding the Customer Base

He Quan recognizes the importance of engaging with both domestic and foreign tourists to grow his business. He notes that his clients from Singapore and Malaysia often share their experiences on social media platforms like Xiaohongshu, which enhances his visibility and attracts more customers. Since China lifted nearly three years of strict COVID-19 controls, foreign arrivals have surged, facilitated by streamlined visa-free policies.

Regional Tourism Surge Post-Pandemic

Since reopening its borders in January 2023, China has seen a robust recovery in outbound tourism, with Chinese tourists once again becoming the world’s highest spenders on international travel. However, inbound tourism has been slower to recover, with only 35.5 million foreign visitors in 2023 compared to 97.7 million in 2019. To address this, China has implemented visa-free arrangements with several countries, including Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. This policy has been successful, with nearly two million foreigners entering China visa-free in the first quarter of the year.

Yunnan’s Popularity Among Southeast Asian Tourists

Yunnan has become a favored destination for Southeast Asian tourists due to its scenic beauty and cultural richness. For example, Tan Ziteng, a Malaysian accountant, visited Yunnan for her wedding photoshoot, drawn by the region’s picturesque landscapes. Hotels in Yunnan have reported increased occupancy rates from Southeast Asian tourists, along with visitors from Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Singaporean travel agencies have also observed a rise in demand for longer travel itineraries in China, with Yunnan being a popular destination.

Economic and Geopolitical Implications

China’s visa-free policy aims to boost tourism and stimulate economic recovery. Analysts also highlight a geopolitical dimension, with China using tourism as a form of soft-power diplomacy to improve international relations amid global tensions. Increased inbound tourism is expected to drive consumption and support related sectors, helping China’s economy recover from the pandemic.

Addressing Challenges

Despite positive trends, international visitors to China face challenges such as transportation and accommodation issues. Measures like enhanced train ticket services and support for international payment platforms have been introduced to improve the travel experience. However, language barriers remain a concern for service providers like He Quan, who prefers serving Malaysian and Singaporean tourists due to shared language and cultural similarities.

Conclusion

China’s strategic visa-free policies are boosting inbound tourism, particularly from Southeast Asia, benefiting local businesses in regions like Yunnan. While challenges persist, the economic and geopolitical advantages underscore the significance of tourism in China’s post-pandemic recovery and international relations.