“Consulates resisted issuing individual visas because of the perceived risk of illegal immigration. With the group visas, the tour operator could be held responsible if someone didn’t return to China,” explains Roy Graff, the managing director of the tourism consultancy China Contact.
But with the rise of affluent Chinese tourists, attitudes are changing.
“The watershed moment was in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. These events put the wealth of China on the global stage,” says Graff, adding that “Western countries realized that the segments of the population that can afford to travel abroad are already part of a developed economy and aren’t likely to overstay their visas and disappear.”
Nowadays, Chinese citizens who have a couple of stamps in their passports are highly likely to obtain visas for Western countries, who themselves are competing for Chinese tourists. Last week, on a trip to China with London Mayor Boris Johnson, U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced a relaxation of the country’s visa rules for Chinese citizens. And last year, U.S. President Obama announced Washington’s goal of increasing visa-processing capacity in China by 40 percent, an ambitious target, but one justified by the roughly 1.5 million Chinese people who visited the country in 2012, a gain of 35.3 percent on the previous year.
The sheer scale and speed at which China’s tourism industry is developing makes it unique. However, the country is not the first in which independent travel has made inroads on group tours. In the 1980s, Japanese tourists became famous for traveling en masse throughout Europe and North America, toting expensive cameras and hopping into and out of tour buses. However, that model soon gave way to more independent forms of travel.
Even still, the analogy is not perfect: “Japan is a smaller country with a more homogenous culture and economy. When they rose, they all rose together,” says Graff. “But what is happening in China is more a tiered segmentation than a shift. Younger, more experienced travelers, from higher income brackets, are going abroad and traveling independently but at the same time we are seeing a new wave of travelers from second and third tier cities going on group tours, mostly within China.”
China’s developing tourism market is perhaps most similar to another nation: the United States. “It’s also a big market with a very big domestic market. Only a small percentage of the population had passports before 9/11,” says Graff. In the U.S., cruise ship and bus tours promising ‘Europe in 18 days’ in the 1950s and ’60s were soon followed by the advent of the hippie trail and luxury individual travelers trying to recreate the Grand Tour. Today all three strands sit comfortably alongside each other. China, it seems, is headed in the same direction.