GUANGZHOU - Guangzhou, the third city after Beijing and Shanghai to offer 72-hour visa-free transit to airline passengers, is winning over travelers.
The city's historic and modern attractions are part of the reason, but it has one advantage that the other two cities don't: the 72-hour countdown commences the day after arrival, according to Yang Hongyan, deputy director of the marketing department of the Guangzhou Tourism Bureau.
Guangzhou welcomed its first foreign 72-hour visa-free tour group on Tuesday.
The 23 foreigners arrived to a warm welcome by China Southern Airlines at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport.
They were also welcomed by the Guangzhou Tourism Bureau, the Guangzhilu International Travel Service and the airport administration.
A special half-day tour was arranged free of charge for the foreigners, from countries including the United States, Australia, New Zealand and France.
Their first day got off to a tasty start with a Cantonese breakfast at the Garden Hotel. Then it was time for sightseeing.
The Chen Clan Academy, built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was a popular attraction. After that morsel of history, modernity called.
The tourists were taken to the heights of delight as they enjoyed a bird's-eye view from the 600-meter Canton Tower.
Spaniard Fernando Quispez, who teaches Asian culture in the US, was on his first trip to Guangzhou but he has been to China before.
He is fascinated by Chinese history, architecture and sculpture and has travelled to Beijing and Shanghai.
He was flying to Dubai on vacation, by way of Guangzhou, and with the help of the new policy, he finally got the opportunity to enjoy a city with a history of more than 2,200 years.
"I'm stunned by the Lingnan culture in the Chen Clan Academy and the magnificent sight of the Canton Tower. It's such a pity that we had only half a day for the trip, which is not enough to explore this amazing city."
Holders of passports from 45 countries can enjoy a visa-free stay in Guangdong province for 72 hours.
The policy is expected to establish Guangzhou's international reputation as a tourist city as well as a business centre, according to Kuang Yingjun, marketing manager at China International Service's Guangdong branch.
To showcase Guangdong's charm, China International Service has designed new tour routes, each with a specific theme. "It could be the Maritime Silk Road or the Hakka culture," Kuang said.
The Ritz-Carlton in Guangzhou hasn't seen a significant growth in the number of guests, according to Andrew C Rogers, the hotel's general manager. But that is likely to soon change as the policy becomes more publicized.
"I'm sure that with such an attractive policy and the government's active promotion, Guangzhou will become a globally important tourist city," said Rogers.
The hotel has become a selected partner of China Southern Airlines.
Guests can make a reservation for the package designed for 72-hour visa-free transit passengers, which includes accommodation, shuttle service between the airport and the hotel, tickets to the Canton Tower and Guangdong Museum.
The Guangzhilu International Travel Service, a leading travel agency in South China, has seen a 30 per cent rise in foreigners inquiring about Guangzhou and Guangdong in the past week or so.
Fourteen of the 23 transit passengers who arrived at the Baiyun airport on Tuesday decided not to go on the half-day tour as they wanted a rest.
Guangzhilu's marketing director Wen Qian told China Daily that the agency expects to receive more than 1,000 tourists on a 72-hour visa-free transit coming to Guangdong by the end of this year.
"There are about 2,000 transit passengers in Guangzhou every day, counting only the statistics of China Southern Airlines. I think the annual total of transit passengers will be more than 1 million," she said.
The visa-free transit also appeals to business travelers.
Fang Fang, director of Guangzhilu's inbound tourism department, said that more business travelers have consulted the agency about the policy than tourists.
"The 72-hour visa-free transit policy will directly benefit foreign businessmen coming to Guangzhou. For example, overseas buyers participating in the Canton Fair don't need to apply for a visa," said Fang.
The majority using the new policy will be business travelers, if Beijing and Shanghai are anything to go by, according to Yang from the Guangzhou Tourism Bureau.
"Apart from tourist attractions, we will promote trips to exhibitions and fairs for business travelers," said Yang.
Whether they are tourists or business travelers, Guangzhou's visa-free transit policy will certainly attract more transit passengers, according to Zhang Yumin, general manager of Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport.
"The number of transit passengers at our airport every year will pass 1 million in 2013 and climb up to 1.5 million in 2015," Zhang estimated.
"It's important for an airport to develop into an international aviation hub so that foreigners have easy access to the city," Zhang said.
"The opening of Guangzhou's visa-free transit is a landmark for the Baiyun airport on its way to becomimg a world-class hub."
The airport is becoming an important junction connecting Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia and Africa.
To facilitate visa-free transit for travel to other cities in the province, the airport has launched 17 long-distance coach routes. And it has also offered car rental services.
However, the visa policies still need improvements and more overseas promotion.
Marco Rimondi, a 49-year-old Italian businessman who frequently flies to China on business trips, hopes that the authorities will extend the length of visa-free stay.
"Taking into consideration the jet leg, 72 hours doesn't seem to be a long period for me to tour a city," said Rimondi.
Zhao Guihong, professor from the School of Economics and Management at Civil Aviation University of China, advised local governments to connect the airports in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, allowing visa-free transit passengers in Beijing to leave through the airport in Shanghai or Guangzhou within the 72 hours.