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Kunming to offer visa-free transit stays

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At the start of 2013, Beijing and Shanghai became the first cities in China to provide three-day, visa-free programs for foreign travelers. Guangzhou followed suit at the beginning of August. It now appears Kunming will become the fourth city in the country to offer this option, pending government approval.

While requirements for those seeking long-term stays in China have become more rigorous and confusing, the recently enacted 72-hour scheme is an attempt to make short business and tourist stopovers more attractive. Citizens from 45 countries will be able to take advantage of the policy change if they can show travel documents proving they are moving on to another country in less than three days.

The stipulations only concern air travelers arriving at Kunming Changshui International Airport. Policies specific to each city where the initiative is in place differ and it is not clear if Kunming will follow the rules laid out for Beijing and Shanghai or Guangzhou. Tourists in Guangzhou are allowed to use their three-day windows to explore Guangdong province, while those in the other two cities are not permitted to travel outside of the respective municipalities.

Aviation administration officials in all four cities expect the policies to increase international air traffic and to promote China's major airports as stopover and connection hubs. However, in the case of Beijing, more international traffic has yet to materialize. As an article on tourism website Travel Daily Media points out:

...in Beijing at least, the benefits of the scheme have not been immediately noticeable. The Chinese capital launched the visa waiver programme on 1 January 2013, but in the first six months of the year visitor arrivals to the city actually fell 14%, largely due to declining traffic from Japan and South Korea.

Whether Kunming's inclusion in the visa-free system will boost international stopovers remains to be seen. The Spring City is currently on very few long-range international routes. It is serviced instead mostly by domestic carriers and regional companies such as budget airline Air Asia.

Image: Excess Baggage

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Perfect for all those jet-setting foreigners using Kunming as an international flight hub. To, say, er.. Nepal and err..

You can take a golfing holiday on Dianchi lake. Apparently the greens are perfect.

This is big news if you are planning an event. For the ultimate frisbee tournament, this would mean that we could draw folks living in HK, lao, vietnam to play for the weekend. As it stands if people in Hanoi want to particpate is means paying a pretty hefty visa fee.

To be clear, this is a transit visa. That means you would have to have a connecting flight within 3 days to another country outside of China from Kunming. Also, it's only issued from the airport. If it's similar to the others (SHA, PEK, CAN) then you are restricted to sightseeing within the city limits. Finally, it's only for certain nationalities. This makes it much more limited than free 3 day visa would imply.

The problem with this policy is it is too limited. China is trying to woo international travelers to it's shores this way by promoting a 3-day stopover, but the problem is that compared to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and even Hong Kong SAR, all of which offer lengthy visa-free stays of at least 30 days and up to 90 days for some nationalities, China's policy is so limited in scope and the requirements are so specific that many would be travelers under this policy are likely to give China a miss. Indeed for any trip from Australia to Europe for example, I would always fly either via Thailand or Singapore and would never consider China as a stopover, even with attractive airfares.

While Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou can get some traffic under these rules since they are hubs for airlines such as Air China, China Eastern and China Southern, respectively, with the exception of Hainan Airlines which also has a second hub in Beijing, very few other airlines and no foreign airlines use any mainland Chinese cities as transit hubs for their flights from say, Australia or SE Asia to Europe - indeed, there is no need and previous stringent visa requirements made such plans unlikely to ever be implemented. Even under the current terms, Virgin Atlantic is much better off using Hong Kong as a transit stop on it's Sydney to London flight, for example. This is in addition to Cathay Pacific and previously Qantas, which now uses Dubai as it's transit hub.

The policy would be much better implemented if the requirements were: must only be in possession of a round-trip ticket say Kuala Lumpur-Guangzhou-Kuala Lumpur, Sydney-Shanghai-Sydney or Los Angeles-Beijing-Los Angeles or even Sydney-Shanghai-Melbourne, rather than an onward ticket to another destination and a 1 or 2 week visa free period were implemented instead, even if it only allows limited travel in the same province or 1-2 adjacent provinces.

In the case of Kunming, it is highly unlikely that there would be a reasonable number of travelers using the policy for onward travel, since few airlines use Kunming as a hub - a traveler flying from say Bangkok to Seoul could use Kunming as a transit stop under this policy flying China Eastern but this would be rather inconvenient as direct, non-stop flights would be far cheaper (besides, there are like half a dozen operators flying the route anyway) - I don't think there would be any good deals available for flying via Kunming either, maybe via Shanghai but definitely not Kunming, which would likely require the purchase of 2 separate tickets. For all other possible combinations, separate tickets would need to be purchased thus driving up ticket costs and making Kunming an unattractive hub, unless the government and airlines can work together to implement a more attractive policy.

Still, I think if the implementation of this policy is a step towards some kind of future visa-free travel policy for foreign travelers, then bring it on. However, China would be wise to learn from the examples of the SE Asian countries (including Hong Kong SAR) I have mentioned, as they have earned billions of dollars in valuable foreign exchange from their open visa policies.

Shanghai and Beijing are also major business hubs and doing a few days extra business, while breaking a long haul trek, makes sense. Also, both cities are tourist centres in themselves.

Kunming is neither. Kunming wants to be a trade centre with ASEAN, but that is not yet happening. Kunming is not really a destination, more of a spring board to Yunnan (which you cannot do in 3 days). All you can really do is play golf, which some people do.

If it's a transit visa, could you, say, fly in from HK, stay three days and fly back to HK? Or does your destination have to be different?

Not sure, but would that be transiting? I think transit ticket is for an onward journey to a third country.
Perhaps you could fly from somewhere, via Kunming, to HK or vice vesa.

@bluppfisk, as clearly indicated in the article and the replies, you must be in transit to a third country not on a simple return ticket. For example, Hong Kong via Kunming to Kathmandu, Seoul via Kunming to Kolkata or Bangkok via Kunming to Mandalay. In the latter case, a stopover in Kunming would only make sense if you really had business to do in Kunming, but this new visa-free transit stay will allow you to enter China via Kunming for a short period without needing to apply for a visa. As more destinations are added to Kunming's airport, it will become more attractive as a stopover destination. Rumours suggest that next year, Sydney will be served by a direct flight from Kunming, which would mark the first non-stop, direct flight from Kunming to an intercontinental destination. If this happens, then flying via Kunming to say, Kolkata, Mandalay, Yangon or Kathmandu, all destinations not served from Australia and generally few other non-regional cities will open up another option to stopover in Kunming for some travellers.

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