The impact of the new U.S. and China visa policy on travel agents’ China business will depend on the type of clients agents have.
Some agents believe the policy will create a larger market for leisure travel to the destination. Others are less enthusiastic, notingthat the extended visa won’t make any difference to high-end clients who are the most likely to book repeat travel to China.
Under the reciprocal agreement between the U.S. and China, which took effect in November, American travelers headed to thecountry can apply for a 10-year, multi-entry visa instead of the one-year visa previously offered by China.
Those traveling between the U.S. and China do not have to re-apply and pay the $160 application fee on a yearly basis. Instead,they now pay $160 for a visa valid for 10 years.
Incentive for repeat visits
Agents with more price-sensitive clients said the savings in time and money the extended visa provides might just be the incentive clients need to consider repeat trips to China during a 10-year period.
Peggy Aikman, with Travel Experts in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, works with mid-market clients. She said the visa policy, “may open it up for people to go more frequently,” but added that China is usually a “once-in-a-lifetime trip.”
Aikman’s clients book a comprehensive 10-to-17-day tour to China but don’t book another trip, preferring to see another part of the world, she said.
Betty Chow, an Asia specialist with Travel Place in Beltsville, Md., said the savings represented by the visa policy is a plus for her clients.
“People want to save money,” said Chow. “They always want to the lowest rate. [With the new 10-year visa arrangement] it’s the same price for 10 years. And they don’t have to apply every year.”
A ‘small expense’
It’s the more experienced leisure travelers, however, who tend to want to return to China, according to Kelly Sanders, a travel consultant with Altour, Los Angeles.
For these clients, paying for a visa was “just a small expense,” Sanders said. She said the 10-year visa will be convenient for corporate clients but won’t make a difference for her leisure clients.
“I don’t think it will have a huge impact on our leisure travel business,” agreed Susan Dischner, leisure sales manager at Four Seasons Travel, Savannah, Ga.
“It’s a one-time visit for many of our clientele,” she added. Her clients are more likely to return to Italy, France, South Africa, and the Caribbean, she said.
“For the most part, there are a handful of destinations that people want to return to again, but I don’t think China is on that list,” Dischner said.
Margot Kong, vice president, marketing and business development, for luxury tour operator Imperial Tours, also said the 10-year visa will have only a “slight impact” on business. “A lot of people go to China once in their lives,” said Kong. “There are people who want to go back. We do have repeat visitors but it’s a handful.
“The majority of our clients, 75%, are going for the first time for leisure,” she added. “They have been for business many times. They go all the time for work.”
Kong believes the 10-year visa would be more beneficial for Chinese travelers to the U.S. “I don’t foresee it making such an impact on leisure travelers at the high or very high end,” Kong said.
When these clients had to pay for another visa, it wasn’t a barrier to travel, she added.
A winning combination
Some agents view the visa policy as an overall boon to leisure travel to China. They called the extended visa, coupled with overall interest in travel to Asia, a winning combination.“Asia has become a huge, hot destination for Americans,” said Anne Scully, president of McCabe World Travel, a Virtuoso agency in McLean, Va.
“It’s like having a passport,” Scully said of the 10-year visa. “People who have a passport, travel outside of the U.S. It’s freedom to travel. It’s opened up a country to us. It’s easy access and easy access is everything.”
Given the size of China, “you can’t do it all in one visit,” Scully added. “There’s a huge part of the market that travels more frequently.”
A positive response to the new visa policy is also fueled by the growing interest in travel to Asia. Gabrielle Thackray, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based agent with Wentworth Travel of Australia, noted the increasing popularity of Asia in general, and China in particular, for the U.S. leisure market. Thackray books many clients on second and third trips to China.
The first trip might be Beijing, Shanghai and Xian while a second trip might include less-traveled destinations like Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province and a natural habitat of the giant pandas.
“When they go back they want to experience a little more in depth,” she said.