Chinese passports now 'more welcome'

Guangzhou civil servant Fiona Feng cannot forget her first visit to southern France in 2007 - but it's not the beautiful beaches that linger in her memory.

What the 37-year-old remembers most vividly is the arduous process she had to go through to get tourist visas for herself, her husband and their two-year-old child for the two-week holiday.

It involved submitting to the French embassy more than a dozen documents: from the couple's employment contracts, recent credit card transactions, car ownership certificate and property deed, to the child's birth certificate and the entire travel itinerary, including return flight tickets and hotel reservations.

"I had to get all the documents certified as authentic, which was very troublesome. I also had to plan my itinerary and book the hotels in advance," said Ms Feng.

It took her a month to get the paperwork ready and another week before the visas were issued.

That's why she is excited by reports last weekend that France is simplifying visa approvals for Chinese citizens, who will need to wait only two days.

France joins a growing list of countries that have waived or relaxed visa requirements to woo the world's biggest-spending holidaymakers.

Some 20 countries, including the United States, Singapore and Australia, have taken steps such as allowing online visa applications, slashing approval time and providing multiple-entry visas, said Professor Wang Xingbin, an expert on tourism.

Last month, Thailand said it was mulling over a mutual visa-waiver pact with China. Britain also relaxed visa rules to allow select Chinese tour groups to use the same form for a Schengen visa that allows travel to 25 other European countries. This way, they do not need to apply for a separate British visa. Mauritius introduced a visa-free policy this month for Chinese whose stay does not exceed 30 days.

The progress, in part, comes from efforts by the Chinese government to ease overseas travel for its people, many of whom are frustrated that their passports are not commensurate with China's status as the world's second-largest economy.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during his visit to France that China has set up 35 visa-service centres overseas whose task is not only to attract more foreign tourists, but also to make it easier for Chinese nationals to travel. He pledged that his ministry would do more to raise the "golden potential" of the Chinese passport.

Will it succeed? After all, it is not without reason that many countries have raised barriers, given widely reported cases of abuse, such as pregnant women trying to give birth abroad so the baby can get foreign citizenship.

The Bangkok Post last month ran a commentary headlined, "More Chinese tourists isn't the greatest idea", listing as reasons the inappropriate behaviour of Chinese tourists, and the likelihood of them overstaying and getting involved in crime.

Mistrust explains why the Chinese passport remains one of the least welcome worldwide.

A global ranking by Henley & Partners consultancy showed that Chinese nationals enjoy visa-free entry to just 44 countries. Topping the list are those with passports from Britain, Finland and Sweden, who enjoy visa-free entry to 173 out of 219 destinations. At No.2 are the US, Denmark, Germany and Luxembourg, with 172. Singapore is sixth, with 163.

Lamenting the inconvenience of a Chinese passport, the Beijing News daily, in an editorial last Sunday, urged the foreign ministry to do more to allay such fears among other countries of potential repercussions from relaxing visa rules for Chinese nationals.

Noting that visa policies are usually reciprocal, the daily said China, which is known to exercise a strict policy of offering 15-day visa-free stays to only Singapore, Brunei and Japan, should take the initiative too to exploit benefits such as economic exchanges.

Beijing resident Ren Donghua, 41, who quit her job at a foreign embassy this year and now travels with her businessman husband, wants the government to do more. She said: "Our passport is quite an inferior image of China's status as a big country. The government should do more to make it easier for us to travel overseas."

Prof Wang, former director of the Tourism Research Institute at the Beijing International Studies University, believes things can only get better, as Chinese tourists are becoming too big a group to ignore.

Chinese tourists are now the world's biggest-spending holidaymakers and account for one-quarter of luxury goods sold worldwide. Their numbers this year are set to exceed 90 million, with spending expected to hit about US$120 billion (S$149 billion).

"For foreign countries, especially those facing economic difficulties, Chinese tourists are undoubtedly a 'walking moneybag'," said Prof Wang. Additional reporting by Carol Feng

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