Wednesday, 31 December 2008

China rolls back the worst of its visa rule changes

Earlier this year, I reported on a variety of changes made by the government of China, in the runup to the Olympics in Beijing, in its rules for foreign visitors.

The most restrictive of those new rules, in its affect on independent tourists, has been rolled back: At least in San Francisco, ordinary tourist visas to China are once again generally being issued to U.S. citizens without the need to show tour vouchers or evidence of reservations for accommodations.

I learned of the change from a representative of the Consulate General of the PRC in San Francisco , when I asked why I — a writer about independent travel — had been invited to a China tourism promotion event when independent travellers without reservations weren’t being issued visas to China. There has been no official announcement of the change, but neither was there any official announcement of the earlier imposition of the requirement for tours or prearranged accommodations.

The consular official stressed that despite the change in general practice, China’s government — like that of the USA — reserves the right to ask any questions, require any documentation, and issue or not issue any visa, in its sole discretion and sovereignty, without having to disclose its criteria to the applicant or give any reason for its decision. He also pointed out that, unlike the USA, China refunds the visa fee if a visa application is denied. (A Chinese citizen whose application for a visa to the USA is denied forfeits the application fee of US$130, a non-trival amount even in the USA, much less in China.)

With hotels in China having fared badly during the Olympics, and doing even worse today (as are hotels elsewhere in the world), China is an even better bargain than ever. For travellers looking for comfort and amenities on a budget, it’s a standout.

Of the other new rules imposed earlier this year, the most problematic for independent travellers is the refusal of the visa office in Hong Kong to accept applications for tourist visas from anyone except citizens or residents of Hong Kong. No tourist visas are available on arrival in China (except for limited entry to the Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative regions) or at the borders, and Hong Kong had been the only exception to the general rule that Chines embassies and consulates will issue visas only to citizens and residents of the countries in which they are located. As a result, the unavailability of visas for nonresidents in Hong Kong makes it impossible to decide to visit China (via Hong Kong) in mid-trip, after you have left your own country, or as part of an extended trip in which you will have been out of your home country too long, before reaching China, to get a visa to China before leaving home.

The Web site for the Chinese visa office in Hong Kong still states that no applications will be accepted except from citizens and residents of Hong Kong, and that all others must apply in their country of citizenship or residence. I suspect that visa offices are now being given slightly more local discretion, so it might be possible for a foreign tourist to get a visa application accepted in Hong Kong, especially if you go through a travel agency and book a tour or hotel stay in conjunction with paying them for visa services. If you try it, please let me know how it goes. But I wouldn’t count on it: If you go to Hong Kong hoping to get a visa there to travel on into more of China, make sure you have a plan B.

It also seems like multiple-entry and long-stay visas are once again being issued as before, although as before with an unpredictable degree of scrutiny and documentary requirements.

So far as I know, the rest of the changes made earlier this year in China’s visa rules remain in effect. (See my original article for the details.)

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 31 December 2008, 21:08 ( 9:08 PM)

While there are things in China I've always wanted to see, I've always stayed away because of the politics of the place. The human rights abuses of that government are rarely mentioned when talking about tourism in China, but I feel that by traveling there one is supporting their repressive regime. Why do we have a travel embargo against Cuba but not against China? Because China has so much to export to the USA so we turn a blind eye. It's impossible to avoid buying products made in China these days and I've given up trying. But I draw the line at tourism. Is that unreasonable? (Bill Ward,

Posted by: Bill Ward, 1 January 2009, 12:20 (12:20 PM)

I see nothing "unreasonable" in Bill Ward's choice. Where (and if) we travel is a personal choice, but it has many economic and other consequences for other people as well as ourselves. I wish more people thought about those consequences of their purchasing decisions -- and not just when they travel.

For myself, I'm more troubled by the practices of many of the corporations I do business with in the USA, and the practices of the US government that I support with my taxes, than by the fraction of my travel spending that goes to most foreign governments. Does that mean that foreigners shouldn't visit the USA unless they endorse "our" government, or that if they visit they should try to patronize foreign-owned hotels and businesses, rather than US-owned ones?

The places I would personally be most hesitant to visit, on account of the likely aid my spending would give to oppression, would be those where a particuarly large share of my money would go specifically to a particularly evil government. Bhutan, for example, whose monarchist government has been one of the most "successful" practitioners of ethnic cleansing, in part because of its success in controlling what tourists see (not really so difficult once the dissident groups have been stripped of their citizenship and permanently expelled from the country -- few tourists to Bhutan bother to also visit the refugee camps of the now-stateless Bhutanese deportees in India and Nepal) and where a large share of the government-fixed per-diem price of tours goes directly into the king's pocket.

It's hard to separate "government" from "capitalism" in today's China, of course, but tourist services are no longer a government monopoly in China. Spending money in China, especially at smaller and locally-owned businesses, transfers money from the global rich (me) to the global poor, a good thing, as well as (in some fraction) to the Chinese government, a bad thing. It's not obvious to me how to weigh this balance.

I arrived in China for the first time in the summer of 1989, less than a month after the massacre at Tienanmen Square and the violent suppression of the "democracy movement". We had already made our plans before that happened, but debated whether to go through with them. In the event, the people who had been most involved in dissident activities were those who were most glad to see foreigners still visiting -- they felt that our visits provided both some slight protection to them and, more importantly, a way to get their stories out about what had happened.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 1 January 2009, 12:42 (12:42 PM)

The China Travel Service, a state-owned travel agency, was issuing tourist visas to non-residents of HK as of summer 2009.

Posted by: in china, 28 November 2009, 10:25 (10:25 AM)
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