How To Sort Out Your China Tourist Visa
From 2018, in the years leading to the Covid pandemic, China unfurled in step-wise fashion a global tourist visa application program that was as bureaucratic as it was prickly. But since the end of the pandemic, coinciding with her rising economic woes, China’s been accelerating in the exact opposite direction. Recently, it’s become far more flexible and welcoming to foreign travelers. Read on to find out how.
China Loosens Its Visa Rules For Western Europe and Asia
China’s visa loosening began in July 2023 when it resumed visa free travel for citizens from Singapore, Brunei and Japan. Then, on December 1, 2023 it extended this in a total first, allowing citizens from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Malaysia to travel under the same conditions – namely for up to 15 days visa-free in the country.
A month later, on January 1, 2024, China relaxed considerably the documentation that US-based travelers need to provide with their tourist (L) visa application and they also shortened the online application by about two pages.
Then, on January 11, China made it possible to get a visa on arrival at the airport, as described below, and – as if that wasn’t enough – a few days later, it qualified Swiss and Irish passport-holders also for visa-free travel!
China Makes It Easier For US Residents To Get A Tourist Visa
The process now in the USA is for travelers to fill out an online application and take this together with their passport, a passport photo, driver’s license (proof of address), an application fee and a “where you stay” form to the Chinese consulate responsible for their state. Although the online application form at 9 pages is shorter than it used to be, it is still pretty detailed. One section asks about travelers’ intended itinerary. Previously, applicants had to provide plane tickets and hotel confirmations attesting to this itinerary. However, this requirement is now removed and all applicants need do is describe their intended itinerary with no commitment whatsoever to performing it, i.e. you can change your itinerary as needed after the fact. If all the forms have been completed correctly, after 9 – 12 business days, a 10 year multi-entry L visa will be provided to you.
A Quick Note For All Business Travelers – New Possibility of Visas on Arrival!
On January 11, 2024, China relaxed its visa rules a little more, but it only offers an advantage for non-leisure travelers, principally business travelers and so I include only a brief mention here. If a traveler has an urgent need to visit China, say for business, and not enough time to sort out a business visa, what they can do now is jump on an international flight to China and make their case to the customs police at the airport once landed. (They will likely need a detailed, stamped letter from a Chinese company attesting to their situation effectively acting as an invitation letter.) If you can provide the right documentation, depending on your circumstances, then the airport customs police now have the latitude and authority to issue you with a 24, 72 or 144 hour visa so that business people can take care of urgent affairs in China.
It Remains Onerous To Get A China Visa In The UK, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico
To get an idea of how favourable the new policy is for US residents, compare it with how unfavourable the policy remains for UK residents. British applicants must still travel to a visa centre – whether Manchester, Edinburgh or London – to have their finger prints scanned, the policy since 2018. As well as a completed application form, a photo and an application fee, they continue to be required to provide hotel and plane confirmations coinciding with the itinerary they outline in the application form. The requirement to undergo the finger print scan together with the requirement for plane and hotel confirmations means that the UK application process is more onerous than the one in the US, and of course many western European countries don’t even require a visa now. We are hopeful that the visa application process will loosen in the UK, Mexico, Brazil and other countries in the next couple of months. Should this happen, we’ll update agents in an email blast.
Should You Use a Visa Service?
I find myself baffled by seemingly pointless bureaucracy, and so find the visa application process tremendously off-putting. As a result, I always get an agency to deal with my visa applications and I would recommend others do the same. In the US, Imperial Tours has co-operated with Passport Visa Express for many years. (Back in the day, I used to be able to phone them up and get VIP’s next day China tourist visas, but those times have now sadly passed.) In the UK, we work with Cultural Tours, an outfit informally linked through the Chinese network to CTS (UK), a state-owned travel company.
The advantage of using a visa agency in the US is manifold. Most practically, they will “walk” your application into the consulate for you so that you don’t have to go there yourself. Secondly, you can choose between one of two services. Either (i) you get them on the phone and they fill in the form for you (heaven sent!) or (ii) after you fill in your online form but before submitting it into the consulate’s computer system you save a copy onto your PC and email this version to them so that they can check it to ensure you’ve answered all the questions correctly before submitting it, thereby saving you the complications and delay of an incorrect or incomplete application. The third benefit of working with them is in eliminating much of the back and forth in the application process, giving you both more confidence in the visa system and in getting your visa back in good time for your travels.
These days, Passport Visa Express‘ normal service takes 9 – 12 business days and their premium service takes from 6 – 8 business days. (The super-fast 1 – 2 day turnaround time is currently unavailable.)
Cut To The Chase Already!
Long short, if you live in much of western Europe or the US, getting a tourist visa to China is pretty straightforward these days.
A well-known Brazilian agent told me about the futuristic Flyzoo Hotel soon after it opened in 2019. As it turned out, I was unable to visit this 290 Room 4-star hotel packed with the latest hotel technology until a month ago, after Covid had passed. I had ventured to Hangzhou, the hometown of Jack Ma, the business genius who in the late nineties launched Alibaba, now a golgothan Chinese B2B company that helps many importers around the world connect with exporting Chinese factories. For most people that would be achievement enough, but this legendary titan went on to found Taobao and Tmall, the Chinese equivalent of Amazon, and as part of that developed Alipay, one of China’s two national payment systems, from which he then ventured into the financial and credit services in the form of Ant Financial and then into cloud services. The Flyzoo Hotel, developed by his e-commerce company, Alibaba, and located within its business campus on the outskirts of Hangzhou, incorporates the latest in digital technology. Given his track record in disrupting industries, this was surely worth a visit.
Before I describe the Flyzoo Hotel, let’s first put it into its proper context. As a leading luxury tour company, Imperial Tours typically accommodates its guests at the finest hotels in China, themselves often amongst the finest in the world. Typically, these are full-service hotels with multiple restaurants and bars, less than 200 rooms and a high staff to guest ratio. Given that most leading properties in China are relatively new and spacious, what distinguishes the crème de la crème is the quality of their highly personalized service, and you can’t get great service without amazing staff, fabulous IT, efficient management and subsequently high room rates. This is not the basis on which the Flyzoo Hotel should be judged. This property by contrast seeks to excel in functionality rather than in service. It aims to feed and accommodate its guests in comfortable 4-star circumstances efficiently. That is its purpose and how it should be judged – against a Holiday Inn rather than the Four Seasons.
Chinese domestic travelers begin to interact with the Flyzoo Hotel by booking a room on the Alibaba travel app, Fliggy. This allows them to specify both the floor and view in the chosen room category for their stay. They subsequently use this app again to check in to the hotel on their day of arrival – scanning their ID Card and taking a digital photograph of their faces. This image will be incorporated into the hotel database’s facial recognition software. As a result, when they enter the hotel elevator, their floor will automatically be selected. Their room door lock is equipped with the same software. A camera mounted on the door recognizes and admits them to the room automatically. Sadly, foreigners cannot use the app in the same way yet; overseas visitors must scan their passports and take a facial photo at a booth in the lobby as part of their check-in process. Although there is a bell boy in the lobby to help with bags and also a Front Desk manager loitering in the background, these don’t really have much to contribute in the check in process.
The most useful service-provider in the hotel lobby is in fact a mobile robotic concierge. As this pleasant-looking and sounding Chinese-speaking appliance glides its way towards you, a list of informational menu options lights up on its welcoming screen to be selected. Amongst other options, you can ask it to introduce you to the hotel, for directions to the restaurant, or to explain the check-out procedures.
Exhausted by my exertions with the robotic dancing queen, I made my way to the room. As you can see in these images, this is comfortably, efficiently and functionally furnished in keeping with expectations for a four-star property. Though there are mounted wall switches to control the lights, temperature and curtains, each room is equipped with a Chinese-speaking virtual assistant, the equivalent of Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. This can be commanded in Chinese to adjust the room environment along with the TV set and music system. Additionally, if you require anything delivered to the room, from a bottle of water to a particular type of pillow or a room menu item, the virtual assistant will organize for a robot to supply this.
Humans and robots work in tandem in the dining areas. Chefs labor in the dining room’s western and Chinese cooking stations. Meanwhile, QR codes on the table tops direct diners to online restaurant menus and meal ordering programs. Shortly after inputting a table order, dishes are delivered by robots to the table. Diners have to be prompt in removing the food from the drawer at the top of the robot.
Where humans are most in evidence both in the bedrooms and in the dining rooms is in cleaning things away. Neither housekeepers’ nor busboys’ functions have yet been automated. It is an ironic comment on the future of hotel employment that the positions with the lowest paying salaries seem to be safest from being automated.
Whilst the claim will be made that a highly automated hotel makes for a soulless experience, travelers who travel at the 3 and 4 star level are value rather than service-driven. I am not expecting a remarkable service experience when I book an overnight stay at the Holiday Inn, for example. My exchanges with staff will be prompt, utilitarian and efficient. A booking in this segment focuses on value as comprised of a number of factors including price, cleanliness, comfort and convenience. The labor savings that the application of inexpensive technology and robots can provide definitely confer competitive advantage, and the Flyzoo hotel rooms seem like a great deal for the price. While some technologies such as facial recognition software and virtual assistants are bound to be incorporated into the finest hotels, I am not expecting a robotic concierge, even an all-dancing one, to replace the Peninsula concierge or the St. Regis butler anytime soon.
The reopening of international travel to China in March 2023 has introduced visitors to changes in rules for accessing Tiananmen Square and for buying tickets to the Forbidden City in Beijing. If you are working without the help of a luxury tour operator such as Imperial Tours, which can organize these tickets as part of an custom package, but want to organize these activities for yourself, the instructions below detail how to do it.
To Access Tiananmen Square (Without Visiting The Forbidden City)
As of 2021, travelers must make a reservation to Tiananmen Square at a particular time to access it. The most convenient way to organize this is to download the Wechat app and look in the search bar for a mini-app called “天安门广场预约参观”. Unfortunately, an English language version is not yet available. Double-click on the mini-app to open it and then click on “个人预约” which means “Individual Ticket Ordering”. The next screen in Chinese provides dates for entry. Once you have selected a suitable day, the next screen offers four choices: 升旗 (flag raising for which you should arrive before dawn), 上午 (morning), 下午 (afternoon), and 降旗 (flag lowering in the evening). The following screen asks for the personal information of every visitor including the surname (姓名), type of identity document (证件类型), for which your answer should be passport (护照), passport number (证件号码) and mobile phone number (手机号码). Please note that families with children under 6 years of age or less than 1.2 meters (47 inches) in height should request children (儿童). Once you complete this information for all the passengers, you will arrive at a screen with a reservation number detailing your visit time along with your total adult and children tickets.
Now that you have reserved a time to visit, you should proceed to one of the entry points to Tiananmen Square at the reserved time, remembering to take your passports with you. There will be a line for the security inspection prior to accessing the square where your passport will be confirmed against the reservation system, you will be asked to pass through a metal detector scan and any bags you have with you will be examined. If it is a hot day, please remember to take a bottle of water!
To Purchase Tickets For The Forbidden City And Tiananmen Square
The process for purchasing tickets for the Forbidden City has also become more onerous. Imperial Tours can simplify this for you greatly taking care of all the admin and also reducing the time you will have to queue at the site to collect your tickets prior to queuing to access the site. Should you wish to do this for yourself, you can easily reserve tickets up to 6 days in advance at the English language website. On this website, you select the time for your visit, along with the number of visitors and enter the passport information for each of the visitors. The website charges a US$3 per ticket booking fee and gives you the right to queue up and purchase tickets at 60RMB per ticket before your visit.
It makes sense to arrive at the Forbidden City in good time for your visiting slot as you will need to find your way to the ticket office on the west side of Wumen or Meridian Gate. Once there, you will find there is a queue of 10 – 50 minutes to get to the ticket window, where you can purchase your tickets at 60RMB per ticket. Once you have bought your tickets, you should advance to the queue for entry for individual ticket holders. Fortunately, this is a much quicker queue and you will only need to wait here for about 5 – 20 minutes in order to get into the Forbidden City and start your visit. Note that once you get your reservation to purchase tickets for the Forbidden City, you can automatically use the same reservation to gain access to Tiananmen Square at the same time so long as you are not visiting the flag raising or lowering ceremony – these require a separate application, as described above.
Should you wish to use the services of Imperial Tours to develop a tailored luxury tour package, you will find that you will access both Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City with shorter or no queue times and far less hassle.
Daily life in China has become so reliant on using smart phone apps that I now wonder if I could survive without them! The obvious immediate obstacle for a tourist is flagging down taxis as these exclusively respond to ride-hailing apps now. That said, even though local Chinese people are using their smart phones to handle all their daily tasks from paying their phone bill, to ordering cinema tickets to renting a bike, it is NOW possible for tourists not only to get about, but also to take advantage of Chinese super-apps to facilitate their travel in China. Find out how you should best prepare for a trip to China (as of summer 2023).
Getting a Good VPN.
Any article about digital China for a westerner begins with the absolute necessity of downloading a high quality VPN. Many of the west’s favourite apps, such as Google, Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Google Maps and Google Translate are not accessible from China without one. A VPN creates a way for you to tunnel digitally through China’s Great Firewall and access these much-loved apps that are banned in China. My experience is that China’s Great Firewall has different levels of control. During a People’s Congress when Beijing is locked down tight, even the best VPN’s do not work. However, at normal times, the Great Firewall is porous. I’m not going to recommend a particular VPN in this article, but if you are thinking to use a free or a low-cost VPN, bear in mind that you generally get what you pay for. And if you arrive in China with a VPN that is ineffective, your challenge will be to download a high-quality VPN from inside China, which is that much harder (though still doable). (Android phone users should also remember that Google Play cannot be used from inside China, so if they do not have a VPN installed, they are not going to be able to install a new VPN service in China, unless they find a wifi service which already has it.) My final suggestion in this regard is in fact to download two high quality VPNs prior to your trip to China, so that if one does not work, you can try to use the other.
How to pay with an APP
Two super-apps take up the lion’s share of Chinese users’ attention, similar to how Google and Facebook divide the western digital universe between them. In China, these are Wechat and Alipay, the former established by a company called Tencent and the latter created by Jack Ma, the iconic Chinese entrepreneur behind Alibaba. The most significant feature of both is that they have established themselves for mobile payment services covering payments as wide-ranging as to the taxi driver, utility companies and for cinema bookings. Both buttress this payment service with a panoply of mini-apps supplying everything from food delivery to insurance to translation. Theis wide range of services has led to them being known as super-apps. The idea is that they are a digital one-stop shop. We don’t yet have anything like it in the west – it would be like trying to use Amazon or Apple for all our digital needs.
Until now, overseas travelers to China have experienced real problems using anything but cash to pay for goods and services in China as only a limited number of retailers accept overseas credit cards. Although it is illegal in China for retailers to refuse cash as payment, the practical reality where almost no one is using it means that outlets are increasingly unprepared to accommodate it. The great news is that now if they have either a Mastercard or a Visa credit or debit card international travelers can register and use these with the English language versions of Alipay and Wechat. After doing so, not only can overseas travelers use Alipay and Wechat to pay for services in China, but they will also benefit from the various English language mini-apps offered on either app. Alipay was the first to announce their tie-up with Mastercard in June 2023 and instructions for how to link your Mastercard to Alipay can be found here.
Wechat announced at the end of this same month, June 2023, that they will allow overseas visitors to register their international Visa, Mastercard, JCB and Discover cards in their app from August 2023. Details for how to go about doing this can be found here. (Wechat previously had a facility to allow registration of overseas credit cards on their app, but this did not always translate into being able to make payments at many retail outlets in China.)
English Language Alipay Services
The scan function on the top left of the home page will enable you to pay for services, provided that your Mastercard is linked to the Alipay account. The transport icon facilitates for you to get about on the bus, by metro, hail a cab as well as buy train and plane tickets. In the “How—to” icon you can use the online translation service, where an image of Chinese text will be instantly converted into English for you. This could be useful in ordering food at a restaurant or trying to work out the destination of trains and planes at stations and airports.
English Langage Wechat Services
To use Wechat to pay for stuff, press the encircled + icon in the top right corner and select “Money” to allow others to scan you, or “Scan” for you to scan others’ payment codes, depending on the situation and payment format. In addition to payment, Wechat is known for its messaging service – it is in effect the Chinese version of Whatsapp with Wechat probably more widespread in China than Whatsapp is in the west. You are safe to assume that everyone you meet in China will have a Wechat account and so if you want to stay in touch and communicate with Chinese people this is the best possible way. (You will also probably find that many of your overseas Chinese friends back home already have a Wechat account.) To get someone’s contact, click the encircled + icon in the top right hand corner and click on “Add Contacts”, then either scan their QR code or select “My Weixin ID” to allow them to scan your code. (Wechat in Chinese is called weixin.)
As you can only use Google Translate inside China with a VPN, another excellent translation app for you to consider downloading prior to travel here is DeepL. You paste text into the window and can choose to translate it quickly and accurately into any number of languages.
If you are an Iphone user, then Apple Maps will work for you in China in English, and this is your best bet. Note that Google Maps does not work in China even with a VPN. The Map function on the Bing.com website will be all in Chinese. Similarly, popular local Chinese navigation apps like Baidu and Gaode are all in Chinese without English functionality. The only remaining option for Android users seems to be downloading an English language map from Map.Me. These are maps that you download onto your phone offline for use in China. They are available for China at a provincial or in more detail at a city level. These were useful in getting me between well-known destinations, such as a large hotel to a well-known tourist site, but when I tried finding a particular noodle store, this was not included in the map database. Therefore, this is a solid back up for most situations, but isn’t as complete as what you’re probably used to back home.
Booking Travel E.g. Hotels, Trains and Airplanes
Trip.com is a fabulous English language engine for easily and efficiently booking hotels, train tickets and airplanes in China.
If you speak some Chinese, I’d also recommend you download the following apps prior to a trip to China:
– Dianping is a terrific app for restaurant reviews and bookings.
– Didi and Gaode are commonly used for ride-hailing, the latter also having a popular mapping function.
– Taobao and JD are the best for online shopping
– Ele.me and Meituan are popular for ordering food deliveries and groceries.
I hope this article has opened your eyes to the enrichment that China’s digital app universe can provide to your travels in China, as well as intimating the depth and ubiquity of apps in Chinese daily life, whether in the city or countryside. At the time of writing this article, Alipay and Wechat had only just started to accept overseas credit cards onto their platforms. The English language versions of these super-apps offer a limited range of English language mini-apps, but I’d hope that as time goes by, they will offer a wider range of traveler-friendly apps.
If you found this article helpful, please do write in with comments after your China trip on how you found and negotiated your digital travels through China and please do include what you learned so that I can update the information here. Thanks.
China invested about US$900bn from 2008 – 2023 in a national high speed rail network of over 26,000 miles (40,000km), about 13 times the length of Japan or France’s network. Like theirs, trains are designed to run at between 120 – 220mph. In 2021, during the Covid period, this mammoth infrastructural investment brought in US$104 billion in revenues, representing (according to the Paulson Institute and World Bank) a return of about 7% in lower-carbon generating interconnectivity.
Climate-conscious travelers will wish to use this network as much as possible in their journeys. Other people might wish to learn more about what travel in these trains is like and about the overall value proposition before incorporating certain train routes into their China travel.
Beijing to Xi’an – Time Comparison
For a first-time traveler to China, the obvious route to do by rail is that between Beijing and Xi’an. The fastest high-speed train between Beijing and Xi’an takes 4 hours and 11 minutes. The train arrives and departs exactly on time and the likelihood of a delay is improbable.
Travel time to West Station in Beijing is about 20 minutes from the centre of Beijing, defined as Tiananmen Square, but many travelers will be residing in Chaoyang district on Beijing’s eastern side and so can expect this journey to take 40 minutes or more. On the day of my trial, I was running late and so crossed the station and boarded the train within ten minutes. However, most people will wish to allow at least 30 minutes and tour operators may well wish to pre-book porters, as otherwise clients will be pushing their bags for long distances from their vehicle through the station and onto the train itself.
At the other end, it took me 1 hour to travel by car from Xi’an North Station to the Ritz Carlton in the south of the city. Although this is geographically considerably closer than from Xi’an airport, inner-city traffic resulted in it taking just as long. Door to door the total journey time from Beijing to Xi’an on the fastest train is therefore 6 hours and 20 minutes.
If you travel by plane, it will take you about the same transit time to go by car to T2 or T3 at Beijing International airport about 1 hour in advance. Aviation companies allow 2 hours and 15 minutes but flight time is only 1.5 hours. Assuming airport arrival 1 hour before departure and then 30 minutes at the other end to pick up your bags, then the total journey time by plane is 5.5 hours, or about 50 minutes quicker. That said, whereas train travel happens to the minute, plane travel is subject to more frequent delays.
Comparing Price, Carbon And Other Factors
The three classes of train travel in descending order are Business, First and Second. (Yes, Business is above First.) These are described in more detail in a special section below. Business is about double the price of First Class and more than triple that of Second Class. Traveling in Business by train is priced to be equivalent to the plane. By comparison “First Class” on the train, which offers much more space and comfort than Economy on the plane, is about 20% cheaper than the plane. Second class on the train, which is still slightly roomier than Economy on a plane is about half the price of the plane.
Therefore, if you are a business person prioritizing speed above all else, then traveling by plane wins. However, if the business person has some project work to do, it will be easier to complete it on the train where s/he spends more time in one place, and so it is arguable that even though the transit takes one hour longer by train, it makes for better use of time.
Climate conscious travelers will be aware that train travel results in about 14 – 16 times less emission than plane travel. Families and older travelers should be aware that the total walking distance in train stations is not dissimilar to what you encounter in airports, though the security is less bothersome.
A last consideration for the tourist is that other than skyscapes and clouds, there is little to see out of the window over the course of a plane journey. By contrast, the view from the train is fascinating, affording real insight into the huge progress that the countryside has made over the last 15 years as a result of China’s Poverty Alleviation campaign.
Which Route Makes Sense
A plane travels over 2.5 times faster than the quickest train, and we see that with a train time of 4 hours, the plane already provides a speedier transit, even if the train might overall offer a better value proposition for some people. Routes such as Beijing – Xi’an (4 hours and 11 minutes) Beijing – Shanghai (4 hours and 29 minutes) and Guilin – Hong Kong (4 hours and 7 minutes) might be considered for rail travel. A no-brainer at 1.5 hours would be Hangzhou – Huangshan. Other shorter journeys of an hour or less where the rail network should be considered are those such as Shanghai – Hangzhou, Shanghai – Suzhou or Beijing – Tianjin. I would meanwhile suggest that train routes of more than 4 hours, such as Guilin – Xi’an at about 10 hours, are not going to prove popular when a flight of 2 hours is available.
On The Train – Comparison of Business, First and Second Class
Business class consists of 4 – 6 comfortable, electronically-adjustable, wide leather seats with an electric socket and seat table, exactly as would be found in Business on a plane.
These are contained within their own exclusive, spacious, sealed off cabins in front of the small train driver’s cabin at either tip of the train. Complimentary amenities for business class travelers include travel slippers, ear plugs, ear phones, eye mask, a vanity kit, snacks and complimentary soft drinks. There is a meal service which seems similar in quality to plane meals. Toilets, between compartments, equipped with ceramic sinks and toilet bowl, are spacious and of a cleanliness comparable to western Europe.
As seen in the photo, first class consists of two seats either side of a central aisle with a very comfortable pitch between seats. A complimentary soft drink is offered to travelers.
As seen in the photo, second class consists of five seats separated into a 2 and 3 by a central aisle with lesser pitch between seats resulting in more rows within a rail carriage than in first class. There is however still significantly greater pitch in second class on a train than that offered in economy class on a plane. A complimentary soft drink is offered to travelers.
Process Of Getting On And Off A High Speed Train
To use a high-speed train in China, you will need to have your ID with you. For overseas travelers, this will be their passport. You will have a ticket with a hall, train number, carriage and a seat number.
China’s ticketing system has been digitized such that every booked seat is associated with an identity document and number. When you arrive in the station, you will not be able to use the turn-style ticketing barriers for local Chinese travelers because you don’t have a Chinese ID card for which these machines are built. Instead go to the side where an attendant will be waiting with a passport scanner. S/he will scan your passport to check your ID and ticket against the system.
After this ID inspection, expect to put your bags through a baggage X-ray machine. If you are in a large station with multiple waiting halls, you need to walk to your waiting hall. If you are in a smaller station, there will only be one waiting hall. When there, look for noticeboards detailing your train number and the train boarding order.
When your train is called, queue at the barrier to go onto the platform. Again, because you have a passport rather than a Chinese ID card, you will need the help of an attendant to board the train. Once you are on the platform, walk to your carriage and subsequently to your seat number. An attendant at each carriage will help direct you. After you have reached your destination, you will disembark and follow signs for the exit. To leave the station, there will be another ID check before you exit the station.
As a bespoke luxury tour operator, Imperial Tours will always defer to the wishes of its guests in selecting their preferred mode of transport. That said, whilst we previously assumed (non-private jet) guests would travel domestically by commercial carrier thanks to speed and overall convenience, there is now an option for a climate-friendlier alternative for many transits. Given its reduced cost, comfortable spaces, reliability, insight into the countryside and lower carbon emissions, travel by train for journeys of approximately four hours or less offers a compelling alternative.
4 years ago I co-founded Imperial Tours, an inbound luxury tour operator in Beijing, where I lived for 20 years. As a result of the Covid pandemic, I was trapped outside China from November 2019 until three weeks ago when I returned for the first time in over three years. This article describes the changes I found on reopening China’s travel industry.
The Rise of “Genuine” Boutique Hotels
When China first opened to the travel industry in the 1980’s, one of its only sources of foreign currency was the inbound market. Since that beginning the impact of overseas tourists was factored into every decision in the development of the hospitality sector. During Covid however, China was shut off from the outside world and as a result the hospitality sector advanced within its own bubble.
There has impacted a number of things, but one of the most notable has been the rise of the genuine boutique hotel. I write “genuine” because at the first boutique hotel conference in China (at which I spoke), boutique hotels were defined as having up to 100 rooms, which is not how most western travel agents would understand it. However, after being closed off by Covid for more than three years, the spending of affluent upper Chinese classes traveling domestically has caused a mushrooming of interesting boutique hotel alternatives both outside big cities (prompted by the local staycation market) and in China’s longstanding leisure destinations.
There’s of course one problem generated by this organic growth – in many instances, these boutique hotels are ill-equipped to handle foreign visitors. Yangshuo Misty Wonderland Hotel is a perfect example. This luxurious 28 key hotel comprised of villas and very spacious rooms with generous balconies sporting their own capacious baths offers one of the most stunning, if not the most spectacular, view and location in the entire country. (Above photo is of me sitting on a bench located within an ornamental swimming pool in front of the mountainscape.) Not bad, right?
Buildings are styled on the traditional architecture of the Han and Tang dynasties. Yet not only is there not a single staff member able to rub two words of English together, but there are no western dishes on any of the hotel menus. There is no concession anywhere to the potential demands of a non-Chinese speaking tourist – something that would have been unthinkable prior to Covid.
The same is true at the delightfully landscaped Tong Resort in the same area. But do not lose hope – Jora, a 35 room “Small Luxury Hotel of the World”, in the same area had the most resourceful staff at any hotel I have ever encountered and accommodates English speaking guests.
As we move beyond the first phase of China’s reopening, the re-introduction of overseas tourists to China’s inbound market coupled with the reduction in demand from the domestic traveler, will inevitably encourage this new wave of Chinese boutique hotels to invest in services for overseas travelers which can but enrich the market and textured experience of travel in China.
Fewer QR Codes And More Real Menus
If you’re anything like me you stifle an internal groan when you walk into a restaurant and are compelled by the waiter to scan a QR code to browse online to the restaurant menu, which you subsequently peruse with difficulty on your annoyingly limited mobile phone screen. This was a digital innovation introduced during Covid to reduce the spread of infection.
I object to the impersonality of this characterless functionality, and so am cheered by a trend in techno-addicted China tilting in the opposite direction. When I went to dine at Michelin one star, Poetry Wine, I was thrilled to be handed a thick, large format volume with a photo of each dish with its name, price and ingredients printed on individual pages of high-quality paper.
I was dining amongst a group of friends and we all started to discuss the menu and our choice of dishes. The menu prompted an entertaining conversation that became the foundation of a hearty and enjoyable dinner. Ignace Lecleirc, a successful restaurateur and owner of a wide stable of Beijing eateries including the fabulous Michelin one star fine-dining establishment, Temple Restaurant Beijing – Hutong, assures me that this trend is now becoming well-established.
A New Digital Divide In China
When people speak of a digital divide they typically refer generationally to the elderly failing to keep up with the technology of the day, not the bifurcation of American and Chinese internet systems with their separate app universes. Whilst I can travel freely between western Europe and America and use the same apps such as Uber, Booking.com, Google Maps and Whatsapp, that borderless digital experience totally collapses at Chin’s border.
Not only do all apps owned by Google or Facebook not operate in China, but moreover, China’s digital universe is comprised of an entirely different set of apps. For navigation, you would use Baidu or Gaode, the first of which does not even seem to be available to non-China registered accounts. Restaurant recommendations are on Dianping. Ride hailing is on Didi, payment services rely on Alipay or Wechat and ctrip would be used for travel bookings. It’s an entirely different app universe and with the exception of ctrip, which offers trip.com outside China most of these apps are not going to be easy for the traveler to use in China because of linguistic and logistical barriers.
What this means in practice for overseas travelers, for example, is that whilst travelers can always get the hotel concierge to order them a cab to a restaurant, which the concierge would still be required to suggest (as travelers cannot access Dianping’s restaurant suggestions for linguistic reasons), for the return journey, travelers would require the restaurant to order them a cab back to the hotel. It seems that most cab drivers are accepting cash, so payment in that situation is not an issue. However, travelers can no longer presume to be able to hail cabs as these are mostly responding to ride-hailing apps now. These are the kinds of considerations that travelers will need to incorporate within their journeys through China. Increasingly, access to China’s digital services is leaving overseas visitors behind.
Like an anxious child fearing the loss of his mother, so on my most recent trip did I worry about how I might possibly negotiate life in China without my mobile phone. As I participate within China’s digital universe, I understand its reach and ubiquity such that on the one hand I fear for travelers who cannot access it and on the other, I am subsequently insensitive to situations where overseas travelers, particularly independent travelers making their way without the help of a local operator, might struggle with the most basic aspects of digital life there.
Of course, no article on the Chinese internet is complete without emphasizing the need for overseas travelers to equip themselves with a solid VPN service prior to travel there in order to access their favorite western web sites and services. Indeed, I would now recommend travelers subscribe to two different VPN services so that in the event one is blocked or ineffective, they always have the other to turn to and use to gain access to Instagram, Facebook and Google, etc.
The New Greater Bay Area
This is something that has not garnered attention in western media but deserves mention. The Chinese government first documented its intention to create a Greater Bay area in 2017. The idea is to integrate Hong Kong, Macao, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and five lesser known successful, southern cities within an environmentally sustainable and technologically progressive development plan. And when the Chinese government decide on these strategic plans, there’s usually good reason and they usually happen.
So here we are six years later following the construction of interconnecting high speed rail links, bridges and airport clusters along with new rules facilitating the movement of people and goods between these areas. For the travel industry, our attention needs to be focused on Macau in particular as this has been designated the travel hub within the plan.
Already known as a destination for gambling, following a recent crackdown on junkets (associated with money laundering), Macau is seeking to develop alternate revenue streams. Las Vegas provides obvious direction, but in addition, I have been told, significant funds are soon going to be devoted to promoting recreation and the arts across this area.
This message was echoed by Meg Maggio, an art aficionado of many years standing in Hong Kong, who advised that big plans are afoot in the world of art across the entire Greater Bay area, not just Macau. How this will impact travel we will wait to see, but it’s worth just mentioning now.
The No-Show of Outbound Chinese Travelers
As this is relevant but unwelcome, I will cover it briefly. Major travel suppliers in the west might have been expecting a sudden rush of Chinese clients in the wake of China’s re-opening. I am sorry to report that this won’t be happening in the immediate future. As a result of political tensions, countries have been grouped into friendly and unfriendly sets, with Chinese outbound groups able currently to travel only to those deemed friendly. France qualifies as friendly, but UK and US do not for example. Whilst FIT travelers can travel freely, groups are subject to this restriction. I would anticipate that the warming of international relations will quickly address this lagging stricture.
We are still of course very much in the early days of China’s reopening and many of the apparent obstacles, such as the continuing lack of trans-Pacific flights, will surely be bridged in due course. As that happens, no matter if you have already been to China many times, like me you will always find that it has shifted in your absence and that there’s always something new to discover and enjoy.
First published in Insider China Report on June 13, 2023.
As China’s big cities return to a new-normal, bars and restaurants are open, friends can meet and everyone is back to work. So, what about those wishing to take a break from everyday life and get away for a well-earned weekend? Of course, international travel is not really an option right now, but how has China’s domestic tourism market faired in these uncertain times?
The year of course began with considerable disruption due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, during which all of China’s many and varied tourist destinations were closed. By May 1st, however, China had long since declared victory over the virus and most of its world-famous sites were up and running again. Combined with the weekend, Labour Day (1st May) was a three-day holiday in China, of which many people took advantage.
In the first two days of the holiday more than 50 million trips were made, a respectable number by any calculation. In Beijing, the Forbidden City was partially open for the first time, albeit with limited ticket sales and social distancing measures maintained. In Shanghai, the city’s main tourist attractions welcomed more than 1 million visitors back, albeit initially operating at only 30% capacity and requiring visitors to wear masks. On the first day of the holiday, China’s railways carried 7.4 million passengers, the highest daily number recorded since the Lunar New Year holiday when the crisis began. Of course, one should bear in mind that these numbers were barely a quarter of the norm for this period, and there are many reasons for this. For starters, many people simply did not feel travel was yet worth the perceived risk. A nation that had been told to stay in their own homes for their own safety took a while longer to be lured back onto trains and planes.
Another reason may be linked to the path that China had taken out of lockdown, namely in its use of QR health codes. As mentioned in an earlier blog post “The Benefit of Experience in Tackling Covid-19”, most of China is now covered by a mandatory QR code system. To apply for the code, you register on an app such as Alipay, an e-wallet widely used in China, and enter information about your health, recent travel history, as well as ID information. This will give you a QR code: if green, you’re free to move around, but if your code changes to yellow, then restrictions including quarantine may follow. Each city generally has its own system and criteria, with differing consequences for varying colours. If a neighbouring city has confirmed covid-19 cases for example, travelers had reported that a visit may result in a yellow code and the need to self-isolate upon return. For a short trip from Shanghai to Hangzhou, just an hour away on the train, such potential uncertainty may have been off-putting even to locals. Accordingly, business travel reduced, with companies avoiding the risk of their employees getting stranded. However as things have moved on, it’s now possible to acquire multiple QR health codes, or codes which are compatible across cities. This has helped somewhat, allowing travelers to apply for clearance in advance, and has encouraged more people to get out and about.
Most hotels have now reopened, albeit not yet at full occupancy, but likely faring better than elsewhere. With temperature checks and facemasks having been commonplace for months, China’s travel industry is doing its best to help potential guests feel safe and secure away from home. Hand sanitiser is readily available everywhere.
For foreigners travelling within China, things have been a little more difficult. Until recently in fact, the Chinese Foreign Ministry had stopped issuing visas to China. These have since resumed, in a limited capacity and targeted to specific nationals only (mostly European). At present US passport holders are not granted visas for leisure travel. For those foreign nationals already in China – there can still be compatibility issues with QR codes, although the situation is improving as the system matures.
A month after the Labour Day holidays, a new outbreak did occur in Beijing. Then, over 1,200 flights were cancelled, train services greatly reduced and much of the city endured varying degrees of restrictions. However, roads remained open and people were allowed to leave once they had received a negative test result. Whereas this wave was quickly contained (as is to be expected by the swift action of local authorities now), mini-outbreaks have since occurred in Xinjiang Province and, even more recently, in Hong Kong which is currently at the tail end of its third wave. As a nation, the people are therefore much more alert – and uncertainties have affected mobility – but at the same time, most Chinese are confident that they’re currently in one of the safest places to be from the ongoing pandemic.
These days, China appears to be far ahead in getting life back to a new normal. Restaurants are buzzing and there is life on the streets. Air travel has recovered to pre-covid levels. In many parts, you can see people’s faces again, though masks are still required on most forms of public transport. Whatever setbacks might come in the near future, I don’t doubt that China’s tourism industry, along with other sectors, will bounce back quicker than most.
– Kate is one of Imperial Tours’ China Hosts and a Shanghai resident.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 14, 2017
Contact: Jacqueline Soto, 480-430-7511, Jacqueline@slentertainment.com
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IMPERIAL TOURS GREAT WALL PRIVATE BANQUET RECOGNIZED AMONG TOP TRAVEL EXPERIENCES
Scottsdale, AZ – An experience offered by Imperial Tours was recognized as one of the top experiential travel offerings at the inaugural CHAD CLARK CERTIFIED 25, a first-of-its-kind travel initiative that annually lists the top 25 travel experiences or products throughout the world. The winners were announced in a special interactive event at the Bellagio in Las Vegas on August 13 in front of leading travel professionals.
Chad Clark, principal and owner of Chad Clark Travel Ventures, is a travel industry expert and self-described, “experience junkie,” who has spent years seeking out top-of-the-line travel experiences and services. Now, he is providing a platform for the best in travel to share theirs.
Clark aims to set the industry standard for luxury travel with the inauguration of the CHAD CLARK CERTIFIED 25, an elite list of the world’s most prestigious, authentic and unique travel experiences or products. Great Wall Private Banquet was among the first recipients of this prestigious honor.
“We are humbled and overwhelmed by the immense number of submissions we received from travel providers across the globe,” said Clark. “It is an honor and a thrill to unveil the very best in luxury travel through the CHAD CLARK CERTIFIED 25. This initiative provides travel suppliers with an opportunity to have their premium experiences recognized and promoted in an innovative way, while simultaneously connecting travel advisors, and ultimately travelers themselves, with exclusive, thoroughly vetted travel experiences that have an industry seal of approval.”
About the Great Wall Banquet
When we hear these days of the daunting logistical and financial challenges of building a wall across the southern border of the US, it brings home the magnificent achievement of the Chinese in resolving exactly these issues many centuries before as they built successive fortifications across their northern frontier to protect their agricultural heartlands from aggressive nomadic invaders from the north. These fortifications are known to us today as the Great Wall of China. The incredible experience we are presenting is the opportunity to walk the Great Wall with the British conservationist who was instrumental in developing the law to protect it, and then to enjoy a white linen banquet in a guard tower.
What astounds visitors about the Ming dynasty Great Wall (1368-1644) is its surprising beauty. Whereas the sections closest to Beijing are the largest with the most tourists, more remote sections benefit from fewer visitors and less renovation. The centuries-old 5 meter high “wild wall” – as conservationist William Lindesay calls it – these days does not dominate its surrounding landscape so much as delineate, define and embellish it. William will introduce his thirty year association with the Great Wall, starting with being the first foreigner ever to walk its entire length, to now when he is known through China as the Guardian of the Wall. After a thorough introduction to his efforts to improve its conservation, you will be taken to a remote spot to enjoy a remarkable banquet on the Great Wall of China.
About Chad Clark Travel Ventures
A self-proclaimed “experience junkie,” Clark gave up corporate life to follow his love for food, wine, culture, destinations, a.k.a. extraordinary travel experiences, and turn it into a business that helps people make the absolute most of their most precious commodity – their time.
Whether traveling with friends, family or alone on a research trip, Clark is all about the experience – and when he finds one he is passionate about, he just has to share it with his clients and friends. He and his company have the contacts, relationships and dedication necessary to ensure his clients have the best possible experiences. Clark has dedicated his life to travel and is amassing an ever-growing “Experience Journal” that he shares online through social media. Viewers can follow Clark through Rome, Sydney, Paris and even in his own backyard golfing in Scottsdale, Arizona. Clark and his team are committed to sampling, connecting, building relationships and, in essence, helping his clients live their next big adventure.
Chad Clark Travel Ventures works with people who recognize that the types of trips they want require more than time and planning – they require knowledge, experience and connections, all of which Clark and his team can provide.
Chad Clark Travel Ventures, an independent affiliate of Camelback Odyssey Travel – a Virtuoso® Member.
For more information on CHAD CLARK CERTIFIED 25, please visit www.chadclarkcertified.com.
Marketing China has never been more exciting, easy and profitable. As you may know Imperial Tours has partnered with Peninsula Hotels to bring you Peninsula Private Jet Tours Through China. Through this collaboration we have developed three bespoke travel experiences through China: Culture & Heritage, Family and Culinary. But what you may not know is that we have also developed a marketing plan designed to help you get the word out about these itineraries. Our Marketing Plan gives you the tools you need to promote and share Peninsula Private Jet Itineraries through multiple mediums. The idea behind sharing our marketing plan with you is to take the guesswork out of promoting these experiences. Essentially, let us do all the work for you and all you need to do is share!
These itineraries are packed full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. If they are booked privately, itineraries can be further customized for alternative dates or embellished with different destinations, and if wished they can also be booked on commercial flights.
Our Marketing Calendar (click to download) is complete with step-by-step instructions on how to market and capitalize on each itinerary. All you have to do is follow five easy steps and let Imperial Tours do the rest.
Click to download our Marketing Calendar made especially for you. This calendar provides you with a detailed, easy to follow, marketing campaign that you can print out and follow to promote these tours. Additionally, our Marketing Calendar provides you with easy to follow instructions on how to repost and share from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and E-blast.
Over the next 3 months, starting in November 2016, we will be sending out 3 e-blasts relating to a specific Peninsula Private Jet Itinerary; Culinary, Family and Culture & Heritage. Each e-blast will be created so that you can forward the information to anyone you think might be interested in one of these amazing experiences.
Each one of our 3 e-blasts will have a social share button that allows you to share each itinerary on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram. Simply click the social share button for each social icon and share!
After generating interest in each tour contact us to help you book one of these amazing journeys. Note: private tours based on these scheduled departures can fly commercial and be further customized.
Our Culinary Voyage e-blast will be sent shortly after American Thanksgiving. This one of a kind itinerary provides opportunities for your clients to try their hand at creating traditional Chinese dishes such as Peking duck, Dim Sum and even noodle throwing. China is a “must-eat” destination for all foodies; our Culinary Voyage is a 10-day tour highlighting the best eats China has to offer. Our culinary tour is ideal for groups of 8 or less. Tours are approximately USD$26,050* per person based on double occupancy. To view a detailed itinerary click here.
Our Family Tour e-blast will be sent in early December, in time for Christmas as the perfect once-in-a-life-time holiday gift for the whole family. This 11-day tour showcases the best of China in a safe and family-friendly interactive setting. This tour is ideal for small to medium sized families who are looking for a unique holiday experience and enjoyment for the whole family. Tours begin at approximately USD$102,120* per family of 4. To view a detailed itinerary click here.
Our Culture & Heritage itinerary will be sent out after the New Year and is equipped with unparalleled access to some of China’s most significant cultural artifacts as well as leading creative minds shaping China’s artistic landscape. This 10-day tour will introduce you to private collections and VIP access to China’s cultural treasures. This tour is ideal for clients who are looking for exclusive access to all that China has to offer. This tour is suitable for small groups as well as families. Pricing begins at approximately USD$25,530* per person based on double occupancy. To view a detailed itinerary click here.
*Price is subject to change based on fluctuating exchange rates.
Agent Cathy Dorton at the Great Wall during the Nov. 2015 FAM
Imperial Tours has been running its innovative China Expert Training Program for travel agents since 2010. A number of agents have graduated as China Experts from our free webinar course run once a year. The four-part webinar series arms you with in-depth information about China covering hotels, tour sites, restaurants, shopping, seasonality, and unique experiences so that you can be confident in selling luxury China to your clients.
We asked one of our recent China Expert graduates, Travel Expert agent Cathy Dorton based in Tennessee, how the training benefited her. Here is what she said:
‘‘Having never been to China, the sales process has sometimes been a bit difficult for me. When my VIP clients contacted me requesting a "WOW me trip", it was requested that I send over 2 – 3 proposals. I graduated from the China Experts course on 04th March 2015, and this was somewhere along March 10th time frame. Following my completion of the Imperial Tours China Expert course I immediately had the knowledge and confidence to craft a mind-blowing itinerary!
Working together with Imperial Tours’ knowledgeable specialists and in collaboration, we immediately crafted that "WOW" proposal together and presented it to my clients for review (a family of 4) along with two other destinations. The clients’ entire family chose China, hands down – largely based on those "Imperial Moments" we presented. I booked their travel immediately, and they left the USA first week of May 2015! So, literally within 6 weeks of becoming an Imperia Tours China Expert, I had my first sale!
The feedback from my client and family consisted of "1. Best trip we have ever done! 2. Couldn't believe everything we had access to. 3. My hotel arrangements throughout the trip were superb – our favorite was the Banyan Tree Yangshuo… until we arrived at the Amanfayun Resort in Hangzhou, where we were immersed into the regional customs and relaxation of the property – was so, so needed for my family. 4. Rafting experience on the Li River was cancelled, due to flood levels on the day we were scheduled; not only did our guide, David, do all possible to make sure we had an amazing day… he also, unexpectedly returned the following morning to make sure they were able to have the Li River rafting experience!"
Very high marks for Imperial Tours China Expert Program – I leave October 28th for my FAM with Imperial Tours, and am happy to report due to my immediate sale, I received a nice discount on my trip! I’m working now towards my MASTERS Level, and highly recommend to other agents with a desire to really continue their education, to participate in the China Experts Yearly Program with Imperial Tours.’’
If you, too, are interested in becoming a China Expert, then our next training courses will be held in January 2016 for North American-based travel agents, March 2016 for European-based agents and April 2016 for Spanish speaking agents (training will be conducted in Spanish). Each of the four webinars lasts about an hour and you are required to complete a mini test after each session. Graduates of the program receive:
· An Imperial Tours China Expert certificate to hang on your wall (think of it more as a silk scroll)
· An Imperial Tours China Expert logo to use on your email signature and/or your website
· 10% off our bi-annual Fam trips (or greater discounts as you reach certain revenue milestones)
· A waiving of our itinerary design deposit
· A 3-year listing of your name, brief bio and contact information on the Find a Travel Agent page of our website for opportunities for referrals.
Make it your New Year’s resolution to learn more about China and you will benefit from both the knowledge and the perks.
To register for the North American training taking place Jan 13, Jan 20, Jan 27, and Feb 3 at 4:30pm EST, please click here.
To register for the European training taking place Mar 9, Mar 16, Mar 23, and Mar 30 at 11am GMT, please click here.
For the April Spanish-language training, please email us.