Unable to sleep during the day after an overnight flight from Europe, my very grand friend said he would like to eat somewhere “simple and nice”, so I booked a table at one of Beijing’s finest restaurants. The problem was how to get him there from his hotel.
He thought he might get an Uber but they left China in 2016 and he didn’t have an account with Didi, the company that has a near-monopoly in ride-hailing. He asked if a taxi on the street would take a credit card and I told him it might but not his card. “I thought China was cashless,” he said.
During the pandemic, China not only became mostly cashless but cardless too. This is convenient for residents but creates huge problems for visitors. Almost all payments, to businesses and individuals, are made through the mobile-based services Alipay and WeChat Money (also called Weixin).
China’s National Tourism Administration said tourists have three options: credit cards; third party platforms like Alipay and Weixin; and cash. For most visitors, however, these options are either unavailable or unusable.
Apart from international hotels and restaurants or shops focused on the tourist trade, few retailers in China accept western credit cards. Unless the card is part of Union Pay, the system used by Chinese banks, most machines will reject it.
Weixin says foreign visitors can use their system only if they have a Chinese bank account, for which you also need a Chinese phone number. Alipay says users can link their platform to a foreign card or bank account but only after completing an account verification process, adding that not all major credit cards are accepted.
Which leaves cash.
Another friend who visited Beijing last month had spent a day in London visiting one bureau de change after another to buy up their entire stock of China’s currency, the renminbi. When he got here he found that taxi drivers, small shops and some restaurants were happy to take it but many places no longer have the capacity to accept cash.
In a speech last month, Qiao Qianhui, president of the smart tourism branch of the China Tourism Association, listed other hurdles faced by tourists, including a complicated process for buying high-speed train tickets and the unavailability of group tickets for attractions like Beijing’s Forbidden City.
The problems start even before tourists arrive, with a visa application form that requires them to offer details such as the district where their hotel is situated. “This is not a small problem. Many people give up travelling to China just in the process of filling out the form,” he said.
China’s domestic tourist market has boomed since the lifting of the zero-Covid policy and it is already back to pre-pandemic levels. Inbound numbers remain low, however, partly due to factors beyond its direct control.
Sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine mean that American and European airlines cannot fly over Russian airspace. This makes routes to China longer and carriers have been slow to restore flights, which remain much fewer than before the pandemic.
The departure of many foreign residents during the pandemic has also hit the tourist industry because they encouraged their friends and family to visit.
Qiao said foreign visitors complain about being unable to use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which are blocked in China. He also noted that while tourism within China is almost entirely based on the internet, it is difficult to make bookings online from abroad.
Experienced employees in the hospitality industry who speak foreign languages are leaving and young people are not interested in such jobs, Qiao said.
“We used to have internationally-oriented hotels. The front desk staff, room service and restaurant staff had at least basic languages. Now, most of them are gone,” he said.
He blamed growing anti-China sentiment in the United States and Europe, which has risen especially sharply in Britain, for some of the difficulty in attracting more visitors. He suggested using TikTok to advertise China as a destination to young people in the West, who are less hostile than older people, according to polls. “Since it can sell goods and since it can have short videos, can it include inbound tourism? We need to innovate,” he said.
As for my friend, I sent a Didi from my account to collect him at his hotel and after dinner and a drink in a bar nearby, put him in another car home. He was staying for a week, during which he would have to depend on others to pick up most of the bills, an arrangement that might not have fazed him too much.