SINGAPORE, Dec 9 — Travelling to visit his family back in Dalian and Hainan in China during the throes of Covid-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021 was a “massive hassle to deal with”, said 27-year-old Xu Yuchuan.

Between 2020 and 2021, Xu could not travel to China to visit his family because of the Covid-19 restrictions. When these were lifted in 2022, travelling to China still required a laundry list of documents that needed to be notarised by various authorities.

There were also seemingly countless polymerase chain reaction tests and antigen rapid tests that needed to be done, all of which made it very difficult for Xu to see his family.

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“My mum was especially upset because my grandparents are very old, so every year that we get to see them is precious,” said Xu.

The announcement on Dec 7 that Singapore and China have agreed on a mutual, 30-day visa-free travel arrangement brought much cheer to those with families in China.

This was among the 24 agreements announced at a forum by the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation held in China. The council was also co-chaired by Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong for the first time.

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Since late July, China has resumed the 15-day visa-free facility for Singaporeans travelling to China on ordinary passports for business, tourism, family visits and transit purposes.

The arrangement was suspended for more than three years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“As someone who came from China and is now a Singaporean citizen, this is great news,” said Xu. “Most of my family are in China, and this allows me to visit them for a longer period of time without having to worry about the two-week constraint.”

While the news is heartening for some, for those with no ties in China, the new arrangements did little to pique their interest in travelling to China.

Amanda Ng, 28, said that the new arrangements change little for her because when she thinks of China, it is usually for the purposes of a holiday and nothing else.

The marketing executive added: “I wouldn’t do holidays past 15 days because of work commitments. Hence, the extension isn’t a big deal for me.”

In light of the news, some experts TODAY spoke to said this new arrangement will boost the tourism sectors of both countries.

However, one expert doubts if this new arrangement will “move the inbound needle drastically”, given that Singapore is still an expensive destination compared with other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand or Malaysia.

Mixed responses from youths

The mutual 30-day visa-free arrangement was also met with mixed reactions.

Xu, who has family in China, is elated at the news. The arrangement would allow him to visit his family up to two to three times a year instead of once a year as he does now.

“I’ll go back more to visit my family or just for vacation. I’m self-employed, so my schedule is very flexible,” said Xu.

For Rebekka Lim, a 17-year-old social work student at Nanyang Polytechnic, she would be more keen to travel to China.

“I’ve really been wanting to go to some other country ever since I graduated from secondary school,” she said.

Besides visa-free travel between Singapore and China, one of the agreements announced during the forum was to enhance student exchange programmes, especially in science and technology.

While that was interesting to Rebekka, as a social work student, she hopes there would be support for student exchanges in her field.

“I think it would be interesting to see their social work system. It is similar to my school’s overseas trip to Japan to visit a university and see their social work course,” she added.

Valerie Ng, 28, called the arrangement between Singapore and China “a bold move” that is great for people who frequently do business in China and those with families there.

However, she questioned if the agreement would “run the risk of tipping Singapore’s tourism industry to be overdependent on Chinese tourists”.

Tourism boon for both countries?

While experts agree that this change will boost tourism in both countries, there might not be a massive spike in Chinese tourists to Singapore.

Christopher Khoo, managing director at tourism consultancy MasterConsult Services, said: “The China outbound market is much slower in taking off for a couple of reasons. China was the last country to lift Covid travel restrictions, and the Chinese turned instead to domestic tourism, which benefitted greatly during the Covid-19 years.”

He added that the Chinese economy is not as “exuberant” as it was pre-Covid, which translates into hesitancy and probably less disposable income for Chinese citizens.

Dr Kevin Cheong, an adjunct lecturer at the Singapore Management University, said the arrangement will “reduce one of the barriers” to visit Singapore.

“It should bring in more Chinese tourists, but I do not know if it will move the inbound needle drastically. The costs of travel such as airfare and accommodations and the exchange rate make Singapore a rather expensive destination compared with Thailand, Malaysia and Japan,” he said.

It might be the opposite for Singaporeans travelling to China, and the interest in China would only grow, Dr Cheong added.

“Post Covid-19, people go for long holidays,” he said. “They want to see more exotic places, and we tend not to put off the trips. We are now 'living it up' more so than before.”

Dr Cheong hopes that airfares will “soften” as more people travel, so that flights between Singapore and China become more affordable, thus increasing the traffic between both countries.

“I anticipate Chinese tourists coming to Singapore for business and possibly using Singapore as the springboard to the region and beyond,” he added.

Travel site Trip.com said that the search volume for “Singapore” increased by 80 per cent in the hour after the announcement of the news compared with the hour before.

Flight ticket searches and hotel searches also went up by 90 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively, said Ru Yi, general manager of Trip.com in Singapore.

“Singapore is a popular destination for Chinese outbound tourism and an important source of inbound tourism,” said Yi.

“Tourist-friendly policies such as this will definitely spur international travel as they remove a pain point in the travel planning process, and we look forward to the start of visa-free travel between Singapore and China in the new year.” ― TODAY