China's economic recovery
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Illustration: Brian Wang

China is changing: foreigners return to Shanghai, but they’re here for a good time, not a long time

  • A loosening of visa restrictions is luring back tourists to mainland China’s most international city, so why are they not staying to work like they used to?

Two years after an extended lockdown of Shanghai under the nation’s dynamic zero-Covid policy led to an exodus of expatriates, mainland China’s most international city is finally re-embracing a bustle of overseas visitors.

More foreigners from a variety of countries have been seen in the city’s main streets and at tourist attractions in recent months, capitalising on China’s loosening of visa policies to lure back tourists – and their wallets – amid an economic downturn.

However, much fewer are opting to stay and work, owing to what some say is a sense of insecurity and relative lack of opportunities that dissuade them from long-term settlements despite Shanghai’s best efforts to shore up its status as an open and inclusive international city – a reputation dating back to the 19th century, following the first opium war (1839-42).

“The image of China is very slowly changing, but it is changing,” said Marc Guyon, a French national who lives in Hong Kong and visited Shanghai in April for a plastics industry conference.

Several French people have been visiting Shanghai because of the visa-free-entry policy that took effect last year and is now due to last through 2025, Guyon said.

As part of a charm offensive to lure back foreigners amid a sluggish post-pandemic recovery in overseas tourist returns, the Chinese government in December introduced visa-free stays of up to 15 days for travellers from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia, and extended it to six more European countries in March.


China expands visa-free travel to 6 new countries

China expands visa-free travel to 6 new countries
Other relaxations have also been rolled out in recent months, including a policy effective from mid-May that allows all foreigners travelling in tour groups to enter China without a visa through Shanghai and 12 other cruise ports in the country for a stay of up to 15 days.

Places of interest – from Yuyuan Garden in central Shanghai to the Zhujiajiao ancient town in the city’s outskirts – have been full of tourist groups from overseas in recent weeks, according to local residents.

“I was having lunch near Yuyuan the other day and saw three groups of foreign tourists within 10 minutes,” said Lisa Xu, who works at a local bank.

This followed an already robust recovery in the first four months of the year, when Shanghai received more than 1.23 million foreigners who spent at least one night in the city – a year-on-year increase of 250 per cent, according to data released on May 28 by the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture and Tourism.

And the total is nearly 70 per cent of what was seen during the same period in pre-pandemic 2019, according to calculations by the Post.

While most inbound visits to mainland China last year were made by people from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and East Asia countries such as Thailand and Japan, more visitors now appear to be coming from a broader range of countries.

Dexter Roberts, a US citizen and former Beijing resident, visited eight Chinese cities in April, including Shanghai. He said that, compared with what he had noticed in the past, he saw more Russians, eastern Europeans, and people from the Global South, but fewer Americans and western Europeans.

“China has been pushing [Global South relations], and there’s the obvious warmth between Xi Jinping and Putin,” he said.

Official data from the Shanghai government showed that among the 1.185 million foreign tourists to Shanghai in the first quarter, nearly 23 per cent came from European countries with unilateral visa-free policies with China. Meanwhile, Thailand, Singapore and other countries that have reciprocal visa-free policies with China accounted for 55 per cent.

A 24-year-old woman in Amsterdam named Annie said she chose Shanghai over Hong Kong and Macau for her scheduled trip next month after learning about mainland China’s visa-free policy in December.

She will be a first-time visitor to the mainland, and she said she chose Shanghai over other mainland cities because it “seemed the most tourist-friendly, offering ample information and facilities for English speakers”, she said.

Additionally, 50 taxis in Shanghai started accepting foreign credit cards in April. Finding one in a city with more than 50,000 cabs remains difficult, but Chinese authorities have said the service will be expanded to more than 2,000 taxis by November, ahead of the seventh China International Import Expo that is expected to attract many foreigners.

The move reflects how the Shanghai government has been promoting the city as the main point of entry for inbound foreign travellers. And this has resulted in more flights from overseas, including from non-Western countries, said Steven Zhao, CEO of the China Highlights online travel agency.

Beijing used to be most people’s first choice as a place to enter China for stays of 10-15 days, but now many opt for Shanghai, he said.

However, despite the rebound in short-term visitors, few of those who left Shanghai during the pandemic have come back to take up long-term contracts.

“None of my friends are back, and they keep on asking me why I have not left yet,” said a British expatriate named Andreea, who has lived in Shanghai for more than a decade and stayed through the lockdowns, doing odd jobs to make ends meet. She said she considers the city her home.

But after having worked primarily as an English teacher for years, she is now considering leaving, as job opportunities in education are becoming more rare amid a drop in admissions at kindergartens. She sees this as the result of China’s falling birth rate and the closures of international schools in recent years.

“Nowadays, life in China is quite uncertain, especially if you are working in some areas like architecture, education and sales,” she said. “It’s not necessarily the economy, but policies that keep on changing.

“You never know what will happen or will suddenly close down, and you see yourself forced to leave your whole life here on short notice.”


Tens of millions under lockdown in China following outbreak of Covid BA.5 subvariant

Tens of millions under lockdown in China following outbreak of Covid BA.5 subvariant

Max Modesti, an Italian citizen who co-owns an 11-year-old Italian restaurant on The Bund in Shanghai, said the 2022 lockdown left a scar on Shanghai and still “weighs on morale and confidence”.

Salaries in today’s economy do not match overseas expectations, except for top-level jobs, and foreigners who try to set up a business in Shanghai now find it harder to prosper because residents prefer to eat closer to home while minding their money, he said.

“The middle class is really suffering in the past few years already, and this I can see in the food and beverage industry very clearly,” he added.

Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have repeatedly vowed in the past year to provide a level playing field for foreign investors. And there has also been a relatively recent shift to make the service industry friendlier to foreigners, especially among those who sometimes find it less accommodating than in other countries.
For instance, Chinese banks and payment apps have been ordered to facilitate easier payments for outsiders, with tech giant Tencent updating its WeChat Pay – one of the two most common mobile payment apps in China – in April to better support foreign mobile numbers and cards.
China’s rapid cashless-society shift in recent years has made it extremely difficult for some foreigners to get around, restricting how much money they are able to spend.

The Ministry of Public Security and several other departments have also ordered hotels to be open to all legal guests from overseas after receiving complaints that they were denied stays on the grounds that they “lacked foreign-related credentials”, according to a post from the Chinese government website on May 24.

Lin Huanjie, head of the Institute for Theme Park Studies in China, expected that it will take at least two more years for Shanghai to return to the 2019 level of inbound tourist arrivals – a historical peak of 9 million – despite its appeal as an international metropolis, improved tourism-related services, and preferential investment policies that are attracting overseas businesspeople.

“This is not only due to the ongoing recovery of the overall economy, but also because the aftershocks of the post-pandemic era are yet to fully dissipate,” he said.

Additional reporting by Mia Nulimaimaiti