China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism has announced domestic outbound tour groups will be allowed to resume on a trial basis. Tour groups heading out of China have been on hold for three years whilst the pandemic made large groups of tourists travelling to multiple locations a high-risk endeavour.
The statement highlighted that from February 6th travel agencies and online travel companies are allowed to promote tour group travel packages and named 20 countries that tour groups will now be able to travel to: Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, UAE, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, Russia, Switzerland, Hungary, New Zealand, Fiji, Cuba, Argentina. The list noticeably excludes many of the countries, like the US and Japan, that recently imposed restrictions on Chinese travellers after China suddenly opened its borders in December 2022.
The announcement comes as music to the ears of neighbouring Southeast Asian countries whose economies rely heavily on tourism. The region welcomed 32 million Chinese travellers in 2019 before COVID restrictions were imposed, which accounted for almost 25% of total international travel to the region. Unsurprisingly, most of the region did not follow in the footsteps of the hordes of countries across continents that imposed COVID testing requirements on Chinese travellers in December 2022 and January 2023. Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia were clear that they would not be introducing testing requirements, with a major exception being the Philippines.
It is not clear from the official announcement on what basis the trial re-introduction of tour groups will be judged successful, but presumably COVID case numbers will be a key factor. The online announcement stipulates that travel agencies hold a responsibility to “carry out good epidemic prevention and control” and should remind travellers of the need for continued COVID awareness and protective measures when travelling abroad and returning home.
The first Chinese tour groups have already arrived in Thailand from Guangzhou in southern China and were greeted by Thai government officials at Bangkok airport on February 6th. Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health stated, “I am really grateful that the Chinese people have not forgotten Thailand. I believe that the Thai people’s love for the Chinese people is a kind of family bond.”