Speaking in Brussels on March 14, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos outlined the Commission’s new proposals surrounding visa policy in the Schengen Area. While the recommended changes to the Visa Code – which include measures to quicken the repatriation of unauthorised migrants and limit visas for countries refusing their return – have been characterised in some sections of the media as a “tougher” measures, Avramopoulos had been keen to underline that the reforms would make it “easier and faster for legitimate travellers to obtain a visa.”
Recognising the difficulties faced by potential travellers to Europe from China and other states not offered visa-free access to the Schengen Area, the new policy would see decision times for visa approval being reduced from 15 to 10 days and increased flexibility allowing applications to be submitted as early as six, instead of three months, before travel. Nevertheless, the changes that could have the most impact on the travel patterns of Chinese tourists would be the increasingly uniformed policy on the granting of multiple entry visas with longer periods of validity for “trusted regular travellers with a positive visa history” as well as short-term visas at external borders, which would see tourists granted a stay of up to 7 days in the issuing Member State upon arrival at land or sea borders.
While multiple-entry Schengen tourist visas are already being made available to Chinese nationals, the decision to issue them is at the discretion of individual Member States. Anecdotally, some countries are known among Chinese travellers to be more generous in granting such visas than others and thus influence the travel patterns of visa holders. Accordingly, the European Commission’s outlined plans look to harmonise rules across issuing states in order to prevent the opportunity for applicants to go “visa shopping” in order to access preferential deals.
Should the proposal be approved by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, Chinese nationals travelling to Europe would be able to benefit from similar beneficial tourist visa policies available to them in other leading tourism destinations such as the United States, Australia and Japan.
While trips made to other such long-haul destinations by the Chinese are more likely to see travellers stay within one national jurisdiction, a visit to Europe will typically see tourists looking to see a number of different countries. Accordingly, the introduction of short-term visas being provided at external borders and the streamlining of multiple-entry visas for the Schengen Area will open up a number of new possibilities for Chinese travellers looking to incorporate other regional destinations into one trip.
As things currently stand, a Chinese national travelling to Europe with an existing single-entry Schengen visa can travel freely across borders within the bloc’s 26 Member States. However, should they wish to cover other countries into the same itinerary – even EU states not signed up to the Schengen Agreement, such as Ireland, Malta and Bulgaria among others – they will find that they would no longer be able to access the bloc without a second Schengen visa. This means that, for Chinese nationals, non-Schengen states in the region typically need to be visited at either the start of end of a wider European trip.
With a multiple-entry visa, however, a Chinese traveller would be able to add a far greater range of countries to their itinerary without having to consider how they might be able to re-enter the Schengen Area during their travels. While non-Schengen European states will be indisputable beneficiaries from such a move, other perhaps less-obvious winners will be Tunisia and Morocco, two destinations already booming among the Chinese outbound tourism market which, from an Asian perspective are considered to be less ‘distant’ from Europe than they may be in the minds of Western travellers. While both states have introduced a visa-free access policy for Chinese nationals in recent years as a means of compensating for the loss of European visitors in the light of terror threats, the fact that neither is currently served by a direct flight connection to Mainland China can render them challenging to reach for travellers. For Chinese visitors holding a multiple-entry Schengen visa, however, both Tunisia and Morocco suddenly become viable, exotic options for a wider visit to other Mediterranean countries.
The Commission’s proposal to offer seasonal single-entry visas “directly at external land and sea borders”, furthermore, would also allow for Chinese visitors to regional countries with independent visa policies – such as Russia, Turkey and the United Kingdom – to add a short-term visit to neighbouring Schengen states to their trip. Depending on what the cited “strict conditions” might be, this would theoretically open up the option for Parisian city breaks for Chinese visitors to London, or a cruise around the Greek islands for Chinese travellers holding a tourist visa for Turkey.
A particularly interesting scenario would be for Chinese visitors to Serbia, a country which saw a 181% year-on-year increase in Chinese visitors in 2017 (close to 52,000 arrivals) following the introduction of a direct flight link and a visa-waiver for Chinese passport holders. Under this scheme, visitors to the Balkan state would be able to benefit from its shared border with Schengen state Hungary, another in-vogue destination among Chinese outbound travellers that drew over 230,000 arrivals in 2017 (a 36% year-on-year growth rate). This prospect of such a trip is particularly interesting within the context of the recently-commenced construction of the Chinese-funded 336 kilometre rail link between Belgrade and Budapest, a flagship European project within China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.
While the European Commission’s proposal still has hurdles to clear before potentially coming into effect, it has already been welcomed in the European tourism industry as a step in the right direction as the continent continues to promote itself to increasingly diverse source markets. Furthermore, in the third month of the ongoing 2018 EU-China Tourism Year, the news that the European Union is taking proactive steps to facilitate tourism from growing source markets will no doubt be received positively by many in the Chinese market too.