Who needs formalities?


Tourists from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia will be able to come to China without a visa, starting from December 1 this year, said at a briefing the official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China Mao Ning. According to her, China made this decision on a trial and unilateral basis. Moreover, we are talking about holders of national passports, who come to China for up to 15 days for business, tourist purposes, to visit relatives and friends, as well as transit. It should be added that in July this year China resumed 15-day visa-free entry for citizens of Singapore and Brunei. And in May an agreement on mutual visa-free travel was concluded with Kazakhstan. It applies to trips of up to 30 days. In total, it is allowed to stay without a visa for 90 calendar days within six months.

In total, the citizens of about 50 countries have been granted visa-free regime by China in one form or another. Not so long ago, the Chinese authorities announced further easing of visa rules. In particular, it was about expanding the list of visa-free countries and simplifying the procedure for obtaining a visa. For example, the questionnaire will allegedly be simplified, its preliminary online approval will be canceled.

The Russian Ministry of Economic Development announced back in August that the agreement on visa-free tourist exchange with China, suspended in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, was resumed. Then came the process of agreeing on a list of travel companies allowed to form such groups. On the Chinese side, the process was rather slow. Then the Chinese said that they would first send «test» groups of tourists to Russia, and then they would put the trips on the stream. As we can judge, so far the tourist visa-free travel between Russia and China has not worked in full force.

But here we are talking about group tourism, not single trips for business, to relatives and so on, which in a week will be available to Europeans and Malaysians. Such privileges are not available to Russians yet, and it is unlikely that they will be granted in the near future.

The Chinese have been the largest category of tourists coming to Russia. Accordingly, a certain infrastructure was formed for them, which, of course, in their absence experienced certain difficulties. Russia is more interested than China in opening any channels of tourist exchanges with the neighboring country. In pre-pandemic 2019, 1.2 million of the 1.4 million Chinese tourists who visited Russia came as part of a group. For Russia, this is not a small number. But this is only one hundredth part of the entire flow of Chinese tourists who made foreign trips annually.

According to the Central Bank, in 2019, the total spending of Chinese citizens in Russia, including tourists, reached $1 billion. For comparison, the citizens of Kazakhstan and Ukraine, who were in second and third place in the number of trips, spent in the country $978 million and $943 million, respectively. It’s simple: for many years, due to the weak ruble, Russia was one of the most popular markets for Chinese tourists to buy premium and luxury goods: clothes, bags, shoes, watches, jewelry and so on. Now Russia is understandably less attractive to the Chinese from this point of view.

Nevertheless, Russia is an interesting country for Chinese citizens. China still believes that Russia and its revolution have pointed the way to their national revival. Even the term «red tourism» has arisen. It means visiting places connected with October 1917 and the creation of the USSR: the State Historical Museum, Gorki Leninskie, Ulyanovsk and so on. Also, the Chinese will not stop buying: amber, foodstuffs, handicrafts and so forth.

Another thing is that Chinese group tourism has peculiarities. And not only in Russia. The Chinese try to organize things so that their tourists book tours in their companies, go shopping in stores owned by Chinese companies, eat in the same Chinese restaurants. A vivid example: in the center of Moscow on Frunzenskaya Embankment, Chinese businessmen bought up several stores where tourist buses would take groups of travelers from China. There, behind opaque shop windows, they bought paintings, jewelry, and foodstuffs. Entry for Russian citizens was forbidden. Apparently, in order not to shock the Russians with non-local price tags. It is possible that apart from direct taxes, the profit from these stores was not very large for the economy. There were stores and restaurants «for Chinese only» in St. Petersburg and other cities. Those who worked with Chinese tourists told of unrecorded cash turnover, including Chinese yuan, and purchases through the Chinese payment systems WeChat Pay and Alipay. Such transactions, of course, are not recorded by the Russian tax service. Probably, something similar was meant by the Crimean official who said that the region is not interested in Chinese tourists. However, this is more a matter of regulation and competition.

But let’s get back to the visa-free travel. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna called the decision on visa-free travel to China «great news». And German Ambassador to Beijing Patricia Flor expressed hope that the Chinese government would provide such an opportunity to citizens of all EU countries in the future. At the same time, European countries are in no hurry to take even mirror steps with regard to Chinese citizens. Who knows whether they will rush to blessed Europe with all their billions and flood the French Louvre and boutiques in Milan, Italy?

Alexey Maslov, director of the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Moscow State University, said: «China has very strict entry legislation, including in the issuance of visas, multiple entry visas. It has been getting tougher and tougher over the years. And in order to visit China, Europeans had to go through a rather long bureaucratic procedure, to which many people in Russia, for example, are used to, while Europeans spent too much time on this, in their opinion. For China, to a certain extent, this is a notable relaxation. I hope that this is part of China’s big tourism policy, when, for example, visas for Russians will be canceled for a certain period of time».

So far, we can’t hope for that. Although it would open the way for independent travelers to the magnificent Chinese resorts, historical sites and stunning hotel complexes all over China.

However, currently Russians have to apply for a visa for single and family trips. Its minimum cost is 7 thousand rubles, which is a lot. In addition, China has introduced mandatory fingerprinting for Russian citizens. This means that those who do not want to fingerprint are not allowed to enter the PRC. The Chinese visa application form is complicated and detailed; in Russia, for some reason, it is also written in poor English. There are even questions about the date and place of birth of your parents, not to mention the details of your relations with China and Chinese citizens. In addition, this year Chinese consulates in Russia have transferred visa processing to visa centers. Their work has not yet been fully established. I think that all these are temporary difficulties that will be overcome. We would also like to hope that Russian citizens will eventually be granted, following Europeans and Malaysians, the right to visit the great Celestial Empire, at least for a short period of time, without tedious formalities.