China expands the number of countries for travel by its big-spending tourists

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BEIJING — China has increased the number of countries that its big-spending tourists can visit by more than 70 following the lifting of its last COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The decision comes as international flights to and from the country gradually return to their pre-pandemic levels.

China implemented strict lockdowns and draconian travel controls within the country and closed its borders almost entirely after the virus was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Those restrictions began to be lifted late last year, but the government has been hesitant to resume issuing passports and allowing in foreign tourists, as well as giving its citizens the ability to travel abroad.

The expanded options for travel began on Thursday.

“The government agencies in charge will provide businesses in the tourism sector with the necessary guidance for the implementation,” the Foreign Ministry said. “At this moment, we would like to remind all outbound tourists to be well-prepared before each journey, stay safe and healthy and show civility as they travel, enjoy the trip and have a safe journey home.”

Chinese tourists, who generally travel in groups organized by agencies, are known for spending lavishly on hotels, tours, souvenirs and designer brands. Pre-pandemic, they traveled in larger numbers and spent more as a whole than any other nationality, accounting for $255 billion in revenue in 2019, according to business consultancy McKinsey & Company.

Thailand, Japan, Australia and EU countries such as Germany have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the Chinese tourist spending, given the relative ease of obtaining visas and the availability of flights.

Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki on Thursday said Japan and China agreed to revitalize exchanges of people between the two countries when their leaders held talks in November.

“The Japanese government also plans to promote active exchanges of people between the two sides,” Isozaki said.

Though it is unclear how quickly activities by Chinese tour companies will restart, a resumption means Chinese group tourists will return to Japan for the first time in more than three years and will be a major boost for Japanese inbound tourism.

Chinese travelers to Japan totaled about 9.6 million or about 30% of the 31.8 million total foreign tourists in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

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Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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