CHINA - When Brian Hepburn and his wife, Joan, stepped into the arrival hall of Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport at about 6:20 am on Thursday, they were immediately in the media spotlight.
Brian Hepburn, 85, from New Zealand, said he was surprised and glad to learn he had become the first foreign passenger to visit Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, on a free-visa transit policy that took effect on Thursday.
Hepburn told reporters who had waited at the airport that the transit policy was convenient, as he needed only two to three minutes to complete the paperwork.
The Hepburns will stay in Guangzhou for three days before flying to London, Hepburn said before he headed to his hotel.
Hepburn said he and his wife plan to visit Guangzhou's Chen Clan Academy and Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, cruise the Pearl River at night and experience local customs and practices.
The visit is Hepburn's first to the city. He visited Shanghai five years ago.
Cui Foxiao, a publicity official from China Southern Airlines, said, "By Thursday noon alone, at least four foreign passengers have arrived in Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport for free-visa transit visits."
Another two foreign passengers came from the Netherlands, Cui said.
Zhang Zifang, Party chief of China Southern Airlines, said the free-visa policy will certainly help the airport and airlines attract more passengers.
"China Southern Airlines handled 420,000 transit passengers last year, and the figure is expected to reach more than 500,000 this year,"Zhang said.
To this end, China Southern Airlines plans to put more high-end jetliners, including Boeing 787s and Airbus 380s, into use on international routes, Zhang said.
Zhu Jianmin, political commissar of the Guangzhou Frontier Station, promised to open special channels to foreign tourists who arrive at the Guangzhou airport for visa-free visits.
Yang Rongsen, director of the Guangdong Tourism Administration, said the visa-free policy will not only benefit Guangdong's tourism industry, but also the city's catering and retail businesses, taxis and related sectors.
Foreign passengers who visit Guangzhou under the visa-free policy will spend more than 5 billion yuan ($815.4 million) in Guangdong in the coming year, Yang added.
Nicole Tan, public relations director for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Guangzhou, said the visa-free policy offers new business opportunities for hotels in the city.
"The Ritz-Carlton is planning to offer new and special packages for the growing number of foreign passengers who will visit Guangzhou in the following months,"Tan said.
The hotel also expects to increase cooperation with China Southern Airlines to attract more foreign clients, Tan added.
Guangzhou began allowing foreign transit passengers 72-hour visa-free stays this month, becoming the third mainland city to introduce the visa-free policy. Travelers from 45 countries who intend to visit a third country and who hold airline tickets to continue their trip are allowed to stay in Guangzhou without a visa for three days and go anywhere in Guangdong.
Guangzhou is following Beijing and Shanghai in introducing visa-free stays. The policy includes visitors from the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan.
Insiders said more foreign passengers will visit the province as the visa-free policy is promoted.