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Why China should be back on your bucket list

With relaxed visa restrictions, a huge new high-speed rail network and a massive proliferation of international hotels and resorts, there's never been a better time to visit mainland China, writes Carolynne Dear


China

From flash new cities to traditional cultures, China has a lot to offer (photo courtesy Unsplash)


The pandemic closed mainland China to overseas visitors. Until the spring of 2023, it underwent the longest and most severe lockdown in the world. Even Hong Kongers and Macanese, technically part of Greater China, struggled to enter.


But in a bid to woo the tourists back, Chinese authorities have been gradually easing visa restrictions, welcoming several countries, including France and Australia, visa-free. And last week came the welcome announcement that non-Chinese permanent residents in Hong Kong could take advantage of the China travel pass. The pass is valid for multiple entry into China for five years and for stays of up to 90 days at a time. What’s more, it means eligible expats can whizz through the e-channels at border crossings rather than wait in tedious queues at immigration. 


Speedy rail network

Slowly but surely, visitors are returning to China. International guest numbers tripled year-on-year in the first quarter of this year, due in part to China’s visa relaxation measures.


What's more, travel within China has eased considerably with the construction of thousands of kilometres of railway. There are now around 20,000 kms of bullet train tracks and huge, modern railway stations to complement the network.


With the construction of West Kowloon station prior to the pandemic, the high-speed train network has also reached Hong Kong, with journey times of just 14 minutes to Futian in Shenzhen. The comfort and speed of China’s high-speed rail network means it’s now more convenient to take the train than the plane if travelling to areas within a four or five hour radius of Hong Kong.


Last month China Rail launched high-speed sleeper trains from Hong Kong to Beijing and Shanghai, cutting existing journey times to the mainland cities by half. Ticket prices start at just HK$680 and co-location checkpoint arrangements at West Kowloon station mean passengers can clear Chinese immigration before departure.


New air routes

Plane services are also increasingly opening up the mainland to Hong Kongers. Hong Kong Airlines has launched a number of new or additional flight routes to the mainland over the last couple of years.


China

New flight routes open up Tibet to Hong Kongers (photo courtesy Unsplash)


This month the airline began flying to a brand new destination with the launch of a two-flights-per-week service to Xining on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Xinging is the gateway to Tibet and nearby attractions include the Kumbum Monastery, the largest inland saltwater lake in China and the stunning ‘Mirror of the Sky’ Chaka salt lake.


More international hotels

International hotel chains have been quick to back increasing tourism. IHG, which includes Six Senses, Intercontinental and Crowne Plaza in its brand portfolio, has opened no fewer than 100 new properties in China over the last 18 months. 


Sheraton recently opened its 100th Sheraton hotel in Greater China with the launch of Sheraton Lanzhou Anning last month. 


And international hospitality group Accor celebrated the opening of its 700th Greater Chinese property in May, as Sofitel Shanghai North Bund welcomed its first guests. 


“The grand opening of Sofitel Shanghai North Bund is especially momentous for us,” said Accor Greater China boss Gary Rosen. “Achieving our 700th hotel this year is a significant milestone, a sign that the challenges of the pandemic and its travel restrictions are well and truly behind us.” He noted that over the next ten years, China will become the largest travel and tourism market in the world.


China

Sofitel Shanghai North Bund is Accor's 700th hotel to open in China (photo courtesy Accor)


In fact, during the last 24 months, Accor Greater China has opened more than one hotel every week on average. Notable new properties in Greater China include Raffles Macau and Mondrian and The Silveri in Hong Kong, alongside a slew of mainland properties. 


The company continues to have ambitious expansion plans for China and is introducing 103 new hotels this year. Key openings in 2024 include Fairmont Xiamen, Pullman in Taizhou and Chongqing, Grand Mercure in Wuhan and Changzhou and Novotel in Nanjing and Wuxi. Two new Accor brands will be introduced into China in 2025; Adagio in Chengdu and Tribe Nation Guiyang South aimed at Gen Z travellers. 


Of course for many Hong Kongers, the most travelled destination in mainland China is neighbouring Shenzhen, a city that has undergone astonishing transformation since its days as a rural backwater 50 years ago. Luxury international hotels have proliferated in recent years. The most recent slew of glitzy new openings include InterContinental in Shenzhen Bai in January, Mandarin Oriental in Upperhills at Futian last year and the city’s fourth Shangri-La property in Nanshan district this year.


Family holidays

Club Med currently operates ten resorts in China and says there has been a “surge” in overseas tourist arrivals. Club Med attributes this increase to Beijing’s implementation of visa exemption policies and the introduction of measures aimed at simplifying entry procedures. In March this year, inbound travellers accounted for 70% of the guests at Club Med Guilin Resort, one of Club Med’s “iconic” destinations. 


China

Club Med Guilin is one of Club Med's "iconic" destinations (photo courtesy Club Med)


Earlier this year Club Med hosted more than 100 tourism industry professionals and media representatives from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries at its resorts in Guilin and Lijiang to experience “the unique charm of China”.


According to Club Med, by implementing a development strategy that embraces international as well as local visitors and deliberately highlighting certain destinations, it has successfully attracted a significant number of overseas guests. Club Med China boss Andrew Xu revealed Club Med hosted more than one-and-a-half million guests worldwide in 2023. In 2024, numbers in the Club Med Chinese market surged by 74% compared with the same period a year earlier. 


“With a robust demand for skiing and summer vacations across all regions, we anticipate a sustained increase in bookings throughout 2024,” he said. “China is one of Club Med’s most crucial markets. We welcome more overseas guests to China and simultaneously, we encourage more Chinese consumers to venture abroad.”



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