With the Chinese leadership’s sudden reversal of the country’s zero-COVID policy along with its gradual reopening since early December 2022, tourism is very much back on China’s agenda for cooperation with foreign countries, including Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).
Before the pandemic outbreak, CEE was increasingly popular among Chinese tourists. According to the data of the Chinese Tourism Academy, in terms of percentage increase, in the first half of 2019, seven out of the ten most popular European destinations for Chinese visitors were to be found in CEE countries. Moreover, in 2018, Europe saw over 6 million Chinese arrivals, out of which 36.3 percent were in the region.
However, the pandemic and the related travel restrictions delivered a heavy blow to tourism. In 2019, in terms of the number of foreign tourists staying in the Czech Republic, China was in fourth place at 610,000. In 2022, the number was a mere 34,000. To put this number in context, Poland, which has seen a dynamic growth of inbound Chinese tourism in pre-pandemic years too, hosted over 130,000 Chinese visitors in 2019, a record-breaking year, with only 28,000 in 2022.
Improving Air Connectivity Between China and CEE
Among the first CEE countries to welcome China’s reopening was Serbia, which in early December 2022, celebrated the opening of a new direct air route between Belgrade and Tianjin.
Speaking on the occasion of the route’s inaugural flight, Serbia’s Prime Minister, Ana Brnabić, expressed the hope that the new connection would boost tourism and Chinese investment in Serbia. Brnabić recalled that in 2019, the Chinese made up the largest number of foreign tourists visiting Serbia, accounting for nearly half of the foreign arrivals to the Balkan. China was also the guest of honor at the recent 44th International Tourism Fair, held in Belgrade.
Another country that expects an influx of Chinese tourists due to the establishment of new direct flights is Greece. This is despite the fact that Beijing’s economic and political influence has been on the wane following the ‘pro-European’ Kyriakos Mitsotakis becoming the Greek prime minister in 2019. Chinese traveler numbers to Greece look set to increase significantly due to the new Air China Shanghai-Athens direct flight launched on December 22, 2022.
This is not the first direct long-haul flight between the two countries. In 2017, Air China inaugurated a direct air link between Beijing and Athens. Although it was suspended in the winter of 2020 due to COVID-19, it was relaunched last summer. According to the Athens International Airport authorities, the first two years of direct flights between the two capitals have seen a doubling in the number of Chinese citizens using Athens Airport. Therefore, the new connection with Shanghai is viewed as a great opportunity to further boost the number of Chinese tourists visiting the Greek capital and the country.
According to the Chinese Ambassador to Greece, Xiao Junzheng, tourism cooperation is expected to positively impact other aspects of bilateral relations: investment, finance, trade, and services. Interestingly, Ambassador Xiao presented the development of tourism cooperation with Greece as an implicit consequence of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) capacity to rule. Having noted the achievements of the 20th CCP Congress, which marked the next stage on the road to the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” the diplomat referred to “Chinese-style modernization,” through which, “within 15 years, the number of middle-income Chinese will increase from 400 to 800 million,” creating the perfect conditions for the development of Sino-Greek tourism cooperation.
A New Visa Arrangement Between China and Albania
In addition to air connections, new visa arrangements are also expected to attract Chinese tourists to the region. In mid-January 2023, China and Albania concluded a visa waiver agreement. The deal was signed in Tirana by Deputy Foreign Minister Megi Fino and Chinese Ambassador to Albania, Zhou Ding. Between 2018 and 2019, Albania introduced temporary visa exemptions for Chinese citizens arriving during the tourist season, while 2020 visa waivers were introduced for Chinese visitors to Albania for a short period.
Following the January visa agreement, the two countries signed an MoU on tourism cooperation in February 2022. Ambassador Zhou Ding pointed out that both deals will boost the potential of Sino-Albanian tourism cooperation and promote people-to-people ties between the two countries. According to Minister Kumbaro, the tourism industry is one of the essential branches of the Albanian economy which is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic; in 2022, Albania was visited by seven million tourists in total, surpassing pre-pandemic numbers.
By introducing a visa-free regime with China, Albania followed in the footsteps of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which have had similar agreements in place with Beijing since 2016 and 2018, respectively.
A ‘Carrot and Stick’ Approach in China’s Outbound Tourism
As the Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin pointed out in mid-February 2023, “Chinese tourists have an invigorating effect on the recovery of the tourism industry and economic development in many countries.” To this end, Wang mentioned that many governments and tourism organizations worldwide had “rolled out the red carpet” for Chinese tourists, including Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Hungary, and Cambodia. In Hungary, this move was lauded by the Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s stop in Hungary in February. In Cambodia, tourism became part of the recently secured “Joint Statement on Building a China-Cambodia Community with a Shared Future in the New Era.” Moreover, Wang Wenbin recalled that before the pandemic the Chinese constituted the world’s largest tourist group.
In recent years, being confident of Chinese travelers’ economic importance for the international tourism business, Beijing has not hesitated to use tourism as political leverage against its Asian neighbors (depending on the situation, by limiting or stimulating China’s outbound tourism to a given country).
The example of the Czech Republic, until recently one of the top destinations for Chinese tourists in CEE, indicates that Beijing may well attempt to weaponize its tourists against the European country. When the Head of the Czech Senate, Miloš Vystrčil, visited Taiwan in 2020, the then Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, threatened that Prague would “pay a heavy price” for actions perceived as hostile in Beijing. Although the pandemic situation in the Czech Republic was under control at the time, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism unexpectedly issued a warning “that Chinese citizens should not travel to the Czech Republic” which some observers saw as Beijing’s attempt to retaliate. Regardless of the motivation behind the warning, its actual impact was limited since the Czech visa restrictions for Chinese citizens were already in force due to COVID-19.
More to the point, although until recently, the Czech Republic had four direct flights with China, possibly the highest number in the region, some were canceled already before the pandemic. While currently, none of the direct flights is in operation, and there are talks to restart the Prague-Shanghai connection, China does not seem now to be the top priority for the CzechTourism agency, which also seeks to attract tourists from other Asian countries, including South Korea and Taiwan. Given the current Czech political and economic interest in developing ties with Taiwan, as a kind of alternative to China, there is also more push for tourism cooperation, including the opening of a direct flight, which is set for July this year.
It remains to be seen to what extent China can use tourism as a ‘stick’ in the European context. The recent announcement of new flights and visa exemptions suggests rather the opposite. China will likely use ‘the carrots’ as a part of its post-COVID charm offensive to Europe, trying to mend political ties with European partners by offering a plethora of business opportunities, especially since Beijing’s relations with Washington are increasingly uncertain, as demonstrated by the ‘spy balloon’ incident.
A New Impetus for Moribund Cooperation?
Even while the doors to tourism have opened, it has not been without hurdles. Although China has recently resumed the outbound group for travel to 20 countries, so far, only Hungary and Switzerland are on the list of these destinations in Europe. On the other hand, after China’s reopening, many EU countries decided to impose COVID-19 restrictions on travelers coming from China, with efforts being made to impose such measures on the EU level.
In recent years, China’s relations with CEE have suffered against the backdrop of many issues, especially Beijing’s failure to deliver on its economic promises, the region’s interest do develop ties with Taiwan and, most importantly, China’s political and economic support for Russia during its war with Ukraine. In some corners, the decreased interest in cooperation with China and the pandemic-related distrust might also limit enthusiasm for welcoming Chinese tourists.
China’s recent departure from its zero-COVID isolationism and the resumption of international trips by Chinese visitors is, however, seen as long-awaited and welcome news for many European countries, especially those whose economies depend heavily on the tourist industry. Therefore, introducing new visa arrangements and expanding the network of direct flights will bolster the economic connections between China and the CEE countries, and could become an asset in rectifying China’s sagging political ties with the region.
Bartosz Kowalski is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Asian Studies of the University of Łódź, Poland, and a Researcher at its Center for Asian Affairs. His research focuses on China’s foreign policy, including relations between China and Central and Eastern Europe.