Firms Gear Up for China’s Return to Pre-Pandemic Business Travel

Following a period of roughly three years in which short-term business travel between China and the outside world was nearly nonexistent, international companies are now eagerly anticipating a return to the country’s pre-pandemic accessibility.

People’s Daily-backed outlet the Global Times proclaimed last week that “China has stepped out of the current wave” of Covid cases and deaths, which have skyrocketed in past months after the so-called ‘zero-COVID’ policy was abandoned in early December.

By now, reported cases in the country have declined significantly, but major hurdles remain, including inflated flight costs, continuing visa delays, and recently introduced testing requirements in various countries for passengers arriving from mainland China.

Beijing-based representatives of the European Chamber told Pandaily that 2023 has already seen an increase in business travel in and out of the country, but that a return to pre-COVID levels had not yet been achieved. They also suggested that most complications should be smoothed out by this summer.

As of January 8, China resumed issuance of M and F visas for short-term business visits and various other noncommercial purposes.

“In practice, however, some Chamber members continue to experience challenges when applying for Chinese business visas in Europe, due to the process becoming bureaucratic,” says the Chamber, adding that certain Germany-based members were now required to undergo face-to-face interviews, as well as provide fingerprints and more extensive paperwork – all of which weren’t necessary before the pandemic.

In addition to foreign firms, many Chinese companies that conduct operations overseas are now clamoring for a resumption of streamlined international business travel.

Vivi He, the founder of Beijing-based we-media startup ShineGlobal, told Pandaily that she had met with entrepreneurs and investors in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, an experience that she said allowed her to feel the vitality of local markets.

“These stunning and authentic feelings hit you in the face, and they can’t be produced through a screen,” said He.

This year, ShineGlobal is gearing up for a rebound in international travel, with plans to physically attend Mobile World Congress 2023 in Barcelona later this month, as well as visits to explore Middle Eastern markets.

Meanwhile, the European Chamber told Pandaily that “EU embassies and consulates [in China] are currently understaffed, meaning in some cases it takes months for Chinese nationals to obtain visas.” However, they also expressed confidence that such delays would end “once outsourced visa centers are established, by this summer at the latest.”

SEE ALSO: Cross-Border Travel Resumes Between Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao

Also underpinning a possible return to normality is the commercial aviation industry, which has witnessed a major reduction in flights to mainland China over the past several years. This has resulted in low availability of flights and skyrocketing prices for travel in and out of the country.

The start of a gradual return to pre-pandemic scheduling is already affecting flight prices. Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines and Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines announced plans recently to resume various direct long-haul international itineraries, as domestic demand for travel soars. Major foreign airlines including United Airlines, British Airways, and Air France have also shored up their offerings in and out of mainland China, with further increases in flight frequency expected to be realized in the near future.

For many companies and economic regulators, these changes couldn’t have come soon enough. According to officials, China’s GDP grew by just 3.0% in 2022, falling far short of stated goals.

China’s international business reputation has suffered in recent years. The European Chamber told Pandaily that its members have experienced “difficulties building rapport with partners and clients, and securing new business deals, while investment decisions have largely been put on hold.”

China’s reemergence from three years of zero-COVID will not serve as a panacea to ongoing turbulence impacting the global economy. However, for countless domestic and foreign firms with stakes in the Chinese economy, the long-lost chance to physically meet and engage with clients and colleagues overseas presents a source of optimism.