China, the world’s most populous country, home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations and visited by Islamic travel writers since the ninth century, is already the world’s fourth-largest tourist destination, with over 60 million visitors a year.
Now, both its tourism numbers and its ties with the Muslim world are set to increase after it approved visa-free travel for UAE nationals, effective from this week. Emiratis can now spend up to 30 days anywhere in the country without needing a visa.
Once a notoriously difficult country to obtain visas for and travel in, China has opened the floodgates to tourism in the past 15 years, upgrading its airports, high-speed rail routes and other tourist infrastructure.
It now offers a visa-free transit policy to citizens of dozens of countries, allowing visitors to stay and see the sights for up to 72 hours in Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Chongqing, and up to 144 hours, or the equivalent of six days, in Shanghai. High-speed rail routes mean there is now time to see two or more major cities within the three-to-six-day limit.
China is also now the world’s highest spending tourism source country, with its citizens spending almost $300bn a year on travel throughout the world, double what is spent by the world’s second most valuable tourist nation, America, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.
China is a target market for the UAE’s inbound tourism market and a large segment of its hotel construction is at least partly aimed at tourists from China and its neighbours in Asia.
With a recorded history going back over 4,000 years, China’s size also means the country is home to a huge variety of cultures, landscapes and architectural styles, from the brand-new, ultra-modern Shanghai Tower to the limestone karsts of Guilin in the hugely scenic south-west province of Guanxi.
Massive spending on hotel infrastructure means that high standards are now obtainable even in such out-of-the-way places, though all the world’s luxury hotel and shopping brands are to be found in Shanghai and Beijing.
Far beyond the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Great Wall, boutique hotels can now be found in less obvious locations and there are now 129 restaurants across China listed in the Michelin Guide. Shanghai now has 28 Michelin-starred restaurants.
Macau, once only famous for its casinos, is also now home to some of the world’s finest restaurants, and between them, Macau and nearby Hong Kong have 81 Michelin-starred restaurants.
From the UAE, already the world’s biggest international aviation hub and only 7-10 hours flying time from China depending on the city, new direct flight routes have been launched in the past few years, most notably with Etihad and Emirates. There are now about 60 direct flights a week to six Chinese cities. This year, Lonely Planet has named China as one of its top trending destinations for 2018.
Since launching its first passenger service between Dubai and Shanghai in 2004, Emirates now operates a twice-daily A380 service to both Shanghai and Beijing, while Etihad operates daily flights to both cities, which are 1,320km apart but connected by a new high-speed rail link which covers the distance in 4.5 hours.