Visa-free policies fire European travel in Year of Dragon

BEIJING — The tourism and hospitality sector in Europe welcomed an increased number of Chinese travelers during the Lunar New Year holiday. The trend is projected to continue throughout the Year of the Dragon.

An Oxford Economics brief anticipated that the number of international outbound trips taken by Chinese travelers in 2024 will roughly double relative to 2023, to nearly 80 percent of the 2019 level. The tourism comeback heralds the dawn of the China-Europe Tourism revival.

According to an estimate released by the European Travel Commission, European destinations can anticipate seeing a rebound from the Chinese market in 2024, predicted to reach more than 60 percent of the 2019 level.

However, tastes are changing. As life quality heads up, the younger generation in the world’s second-largest economy is adapting their holiday plans.

A recent Reuters report noted Chinese travelers’ appetites have shifted from shop-till-you-drop group tours to niche, flexible and experience-based trips. For example, focusing on leisure, cuisine or photography.

Tourism professionals are adapting and crafting offers for Chinese guests. In the Dutch village of Giethoorn, praised as “the Venice of the North”, Gabriella Esselbrugge, a tourism entrepreneur, plans to innovate and improve boat and biking tours in the village and the national park, both popular activities among Chinese tourists.

More Chinese ski lovers are spending the annual holiday in ski camps and resorts in the Austrian Alps.

Yan Xu, director of SnowKing Ski Academy in Austria, said more than 60 Chinese customers registered at her academy during the Lunar New Year holiday. With her academy fully booked early on, she has referred many Chinese customers to other ski academies.

Ivana Jelinic, president and CEO of the Italian National Tourist Board, said in a recent written interview with Xinhua News Agency that the number of Chinese tourists arriving in Italy is expected to reach and surpass the record set in 2019.

She believes that Chinese tourists are crucial for various tourism destinations in Italy, adding that the benefits can extend to all economic sectors affected by an increase in incoming flows. This includes not only hospitality and direct services to tourists but the entire sector of Made in Italy: retail, luxury, food and wine.

“2023 was largely a transition year after the pandemic. We are very much looking forward to 2024, the first normal year after 2019. We expect right now around 1 million to 1.2 million overnight stays from China in 2024, or around 65 percent of the 2019 levels,” Daniela Chiani, director for Greater China at Switzerland Tourism, told Xinhua in a virtual interview.

Air link resurgence

With eyes on rising travel demand, airlines are ramping up capacity for Europe-China routes.

A Feb 7 blog published by OAG, a British global travel data and aviation analytics provider, showed that markets in Europe are seeing strong airline capacity growth in China, in particular Italy, Britain and Spain.

Flight capacity connecting China and Italy in January was 159 percent of the same period in 2019, with Britain at 130 percent, and Spain at 122 percent. Germany and the Netherlands followed in the recovery rate, respectively at 92 and 80 percent.

In an interview with Xinhua, Hainan Airlines’ Berlin office said that although winter is usually a low season for traveling to Europe, the Chinese New Year holiday has stimulated an increase in the passenger rate for the HU489 Beijing to Berlin flight in February compared to January. Currently, that Beijing to Berlin direct flight has resumed to pre-pandemic levels, with three flights per week during the winter-spring season.

Air China has announced that it will launch daily flights between Barcelona and Beijing starting from March 31. The company returned to the Spanish city with three weekly flights in June 2023, following a three-year absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marta Ortiz, a Spanish representative for Air China, said the company has noticed “a big change … the prospects for the next few months are good”.

The boom is shared by both sides of Eurasia. During a concert celebrating the Chinese Lunar New Year in Berlin on Jan 31, Berlin resident Carola Busch expressed her enthusiasm for China’s visa-free policy in an interview with Xinhua.

“The visa-free policy in China is awesome. It’s amazing to visit other countries and it’s very important that the whole world is in friendship,” she said.

Busch visited China four years ago, exploring Beijing and Chengdu, Sichuan province. She recalled the scenery of Mount Emei and loves Chinese kung fu, describing it as a martial art that combines aesthetics and practicality.

“It would be even better if the visa-free period could be extended. One could spend a lifetime in China!” she said.

More Europeans like Busch are traveling to China, especially after China applied a visa-free policy for ordinary passport holders from five European countries in December and expanded it to Switzerland and Ireland in January.

As a result, the economy class seat occupancy rate for Hainan Airlines’ HU490 Berlin to Beijing flight in February exceeded 80 percent. The airline is planning to increase its direct Beijing-Berlin service from three to five times a week, starting from April.

At Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, Jan van Erve, founder and CEO of Dutch Erving Entertainment and Support BV, along with the company’s creative director, Michiel Florusse, is about to board a flight to China.

They are in the process of preparing for the National Ballet of China European tour, including the Netherlands, in collaboration with Chinese business partners, he said. He added that they intentionally chose to kick off their ticket sale on Feb 10, the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Van Erve said that the visa-free policy helps business and tourism. “It’s easier to book now, than you have to go through a whole process to get a visa. So I think it’s very good that it’s happening and I hope that it’s successful to continue such a thing.”

The spark of the Lunar New Year tourism revival between China and Europe is expected to flare and flame. Visa-free policies and optimistic projections signal a flourishing Year of the Dragon for the people-to-people exchanges between the two sides.

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