Simpler visa procedures are passport to success
Updated: 2012-02-10 14:34
By Xin Dingding, Zheng Yangpeng and Shi Yingying (China Daily European Edition)
The dragon dance produces smiles outside the It's a Small World ride at Disneyland during Spring Festival. About 1,000 Chinese mainlanders visited the California park on Jan 25. [Hong Kong China News Agency]
Travel agencies and destination countries try to cash in on tourism surge
The ever-increasing number of Chinese tourists means that more and more countries are trying to simplify visa red tape.
A prime example of this occurred just last month. US President Barack Obama promised that procedures in China for non-immigrant visas will be much more efficient.
Travel services and destination countries are positioning themselves to cash in on the expected tourism surge.
Li Meng of China International Travel Service says that the company doubled the number of April-October air tickets it usually buys for China-US flights. This is the route's peak travel season.
Figures back the confident outlook. The number of Chinese visitors to the US has grown from nearly 400,000 in 2007 to more than 1 million in 2010, according to the China Tourism Academy.
Chinese companies benefit by providing travel services, but the numbers are also good for destination countries. Tourists and students bring in hard cash and in sluggish economic times, cash is king.
The United States is the most frequently cited "dream destination" for Chinese citizens, followed by France, according to research by the US Travel Association. However, more Chinese visited second-place France.
"A big reason has been the US visa system," the Travel Association's Siming Cao told China Daily in an email. "If you look at countries that have made their visa process simpler for Chinese citizens, they capture a larger share of outbound travel than the US."
As evidence, she says that 38 percent of Chinese international travelers visited Western Europe in 2010, compared with 13 percent for the US.
Dun Jidong, a marketing manager with Ctrip, a leading online travel agency, says, "Many Chinese are scared away by the difficulty in filling out application forms printed in English and the inconvenience of personal interviews required for every applicant.
"Often an applicant has to stand in a line for nearly a day for the interview," Dun says. "More troublesome is that before the interview, the applicant has to wait a long, long time."
So many visa applications were submitted during the first half of 2010 and 2011 that applicants had to wait two to three months on average for the chance to interview, Dun says. That eliminated many travel plans with a short lead time.
The delay was compounded by the annual crush of applications for student visas from July through September.
For those who went through the whole process, many who answered a reporter's questions outside the US embassy found it exhausting. One of them was Zhou Yan, a student from Shandong Normal University in East China.
She says she and her classmates had traveled more than 400 kilometers from Shandong to Beijing for an interview. "We waited for three hours, but the actual interview only took three minutes."
The problem with the US visa system has been its capacity to handle the Chinese demand. US Ambassador Gary Locke has said China is the source of about 11 percent of all visa applications to the US, second only to Mexico.
The latest figures from the US State Department show that consular officers handled nearly 260,000 visa applications in China, an increase of 48 percent, in the last three months of 2011. Handling them better and quicker is the goal of policy changes.
Charles Bennett, minister-counselor for consular affairs at the US embassy, said earlier that 50 more American staff members would be deployed to the embassy and US consulates in China this year. More interview facilities will be built, and the embassy is considering streamlining the application process, allowing applicants to have their interviews as quickly as two days after applying.
In addition, some qualified travelers who previously were granted visas might be able to renew their visas without another interview, saving both time and money. The US hopes it will encourage these travelers to visit the US again, and meanwhile free resources to interview 100,000 more first-time Chinese travelers.
Bennett said the new policy will not loosen standards - "national security remains this administration's highest priority," the embassy's website says - but that the US expects to approve visas for nearly 90 percent of Chinese applicants this year.
Li of China International Travel said the company estimates an additional 80,000 to 100,000 tourist visas could be handled in Beijing and Shanghai combined this year.